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Saving the Ocean, One Coral at a Time

Saving the Ocean, One Coral at a TimeSmithsonian Institution senior scientist Mary Hagedorn seeks to save the ocean's coral by becoming the first to cryopreserve the marine organism.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [03.10.10] Between global warming and local pollutants, scientists are picturing a dreary future for the ocean's coral reefs. While many have predicted the extinction of these marine organisms for some point in the next 50 years, Mary Hagedorn (A'75, G'76) is working on putting an insurance plan in place for the species.

"Coral are one of the oldest ecosystems on the planet," Hagedorn says. "They are a small part of our planet in terms of the actual space they take up, but they are like the mighty dynamos of the world, providing nursery grounds and homes for about 25 percent of all creatures in the ocean."

A senior scientist at the Smithsonian Institution for the past 17 years, Hagedorn has recently focused on a revolutionary application of cryopreservation, applying human reproductive techniques to the coral population and creating the first frozen repository for coral in the world.


"We're using cutting-edge technology to freeze sperm and embryonic cells as well as other kinds of tissue," Hagedorn says. "The hope is to create stem cells and try to freeze them, because with the right stem cell you can grow a whole little colony of coral."

She adds, "Over the next 10 years I am hoping that we can energize local zoos and aquariums to take fragments of coral into captivity so we will have frozen repositories all around the world."

So what is putting the world's coral in danger?

"All the fossil fuels that we are burning are causing greenhouse gases and it's warming our oceans and causing stress to the coral," she says. "It would be like us living at 105 and suddenly having it bumped up to 110-it's too hot."

Aside from global causes, Hagedorn says there are a number of local issues, from fishermen in Indonesia using dynamite for fishing to sedimentation entering the water around agricultural and mining areas.

"While coral is an incredible power within the ocean when it comes to maintaining species, it also protects our cities and shorelines from storms and tsunamis and provides a livelihood for many areas in the form of tourism and fishing," Hagedorn says. "Reefs are also a cornucopia for pharmaceuticals, with many drugs in the discovery phase, including antibiotics, anti-cancer drugs and one that is being used now for HIV/AIDS."


Being a pioneer in the study of the cryobiology of coral, Hagedorn started out by analyzing the basic science of the process, learning how the freezing process worked and how the cells responded to the cold.

Stationed at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, Hagedorn says she is in the unique position of having both 75 percent of U.S coral and a high-class research facility in such close proximity.

"The nice thing about the reefs in Hawaii is that there are coral here that spawn three to five times a year, whereas in most parts of the world coral only spawns once, maybe twice," she says. "Having two nights, once a year, is not enough to get the date you need."

While Hagedorn says that her lab is currently the only one in the world working on the cryopreservation of coral, there are nearly 40 institutions worldwide that she has been able to bring on as collaborators, including an international coral conservation group called SECORE (Sexual Coral Reproduction), which works with endangered coral in the Caribbean.


"Right now there is only a small group of people really on the ground with this," she says. "The goal is to expand on this knowledge once we have a really good set of tools to hand over, then we can start training people all over the world."

She adds, "I think it's important for people to know that there are things happening to our planet that we can't necessarily change, but we can certainly help mitigate them."

Story by Kaitlin Provencher, Web Communications.
Images courtesy of Hagedorn.


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