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Marine Biologists Are Using Cryopreservation to Save the World's Coral Reefs

Mary Hagedorn on reef
Mike Henley
Smithsonian Global
Mary Hagedorn on reef

Marine biologists based out of Kāneʻohe Bay are working to save the world's coral species using cryopreservation, a technique that involves storing coral genetic material.

"We started thinking about cryopreservation about 17 years ago when we first came to Coconut Island. The goal was really to protect the genetic diversity and species diversity of coral reefs," said Mary Hagedorn, a marine biologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology.

Using procedures similar to those used in human sperm banks, Hagedorn and her team have developed techniques that allow them to freeze and store coral sperm, stem cells and, in the future, possibly even adult coral fragments.

Coral genetic material frozen in this way can be kept for hundreds of years and then used to generate new corals and add genetic diversity.


"There were so many areas, so many steps along the way where we could have failed, and we didn’t and it was just completely surprising. But I think in this whole journey of doing the cryopreservation, the science has just proved right every single time. If we get the right combination of variables and we put them together, it just works. And it’s magic," Hagedorn told Hawaiʻi Public Radio.

Hagedorn Lab created the first frozen Hawaiian coral repository with sperm and stem cells from two species of corals from Kāneʻohe Bay.

"So today, now with our colleagues around the world, we have frozen 48 species. We have some from the Great Barrier Reef, the Caribbean, Hawaiʻi, French Polynesia and the Gulf of Mexico. And there are about 1,000 or so species of corals in the world, so we have a ways to go in terms of sperm cryopreservation," Hagedorn said.

The Conversation team traveled to the Hagedorn Lab on Moku o Loʻe, or Coconut Island, in Kāneʻohe to see the process for themselves. Jessica Bouwmeester, a post-doctoral scholar in the lab, and intern Mariko Quinn demonstrated how the genetic material is stored and researched.

"Everything is stored at minus 185 degrees Celsius. So we can keep it like that for years, decades, for as long as we need it," Bouwmeester said.

That coral bank can hold hundreds of samples at a time. At some point, it will get shipped off to a more secure facility in Colorado.


While the lab's efforts are groundbreaking, Hagedorn said sometimes she feels depressed about the damaging effects of pollution and climate change on the world's coral reefs.

"There are days where I’m just like, 'Why am I doing this.' But I think technology can help," she said. "The great thing about this is we can stick them away in a tank and maybe 1,000 years from now, people will say, 'Yeah, that was a good idea back then, let’s bring those out.'"

"I’m happy that there are options for the future," Hagedorn said. "I think of my nieces and nephews, and I want them to see a coral reef at some point. And that’s what drives me more than anything else. It’s the most magical place on Earth, a coral reef, and every person on Earth should be able to see one if they want."

Click here to learn more about the Reef Recovery Initiative. This segment aired on The Conversation on July 15, 2021.

Savannah Harriman-Pote is the energy and climate change reporter. She is also the lead producer of HPR's "This Is Our Hawaiʻi" podcast. Contact her at sharrimanpote@hawaiipublicradio.org.
Russell Subiono is the executive producer of The Conversation and host of HPR's This Is Our Hawaiʻi podcast. Born in Honolulu and raised on Hawaiʻi Island, he’s spent the last decade working in local film, television and radio. Contact him at talkback@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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