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How lab reproduction could restore wild reefs

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Coral reefs host a quarter of all sea species, but climate change, overfishing, and pollution could drive these ecosystems to extinction within a matter of decades.

Marine biologists have been racing to restore degraded reefs by collecting corals from the wild and breaking them into fragments. This encourages them to grow fast and quickly produces hundreds of smaller corals that can be raised in nurseries and eventually transplanted back onto the reef.

But if each fragment is an identical copy with one common parent, any resulting colony is likely to be genetically identical to the rest of the population. This matters – having a diverse range of genetically conferred traits can help ensure reefs against disease and a rapidly changing environment.

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So what if scientists could use sexual reproduction in coral restoration projects? In the wild, the stony coral species that compose the bulk of the world’s tropical reefs cast their sperm and eggs into the water column to reproduce. Corals often synchronize these mass spawning events with full moons, when tides are exceptionally high. This ensures powerful water currents disperse the eggs far and wide, so that they’re fertilized by sperm of distant colonies.