How Freezing Coral Sperm Could Save Our Reefs

Scientist Mary Hagedorn is racing to save marine life through cryobiology

Kim Steutermann Rogers
OneZero
Published in
5 min readNov 20, 2018

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For the first time, scientists at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) have successfully cryopreserved (or frozen) and thawed coral larvae from the mushroom coral (Fungia scutaria). Photo: The Smithsonian

For six weeks over this past summer, Mary Hagedorn waited on the island of Curaçao for the one night a year that elkhorn coral — a large branching coral that resembles elk antlers — spawn. Finally, as summer spilled into September, the environmentally threatened coral released vast clouds of egg and sperm bundles. Hagedorn had what she was waiting for: fresh coral eggs to crossbreed with 10-year-old cryopreserved, or frozen, sperm.

Hagedorn is an adjunct professor at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology and a research scientist with the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. She has made a name for herself for creating the field of coral cryobiology, the practice of studying how coral cells respond at cold temperatures, and exploring whether freezing coral with liquid nitrogen could help preserve and expand endangered or threatened coral populations. Hagedorn is also helping to create the first genome repository for coral sperm. Her goal in Curaçao was to crossbreed 10-year-old sperm with fresh eggs collected from the western Caribbean to determine whether frozen coral sperm from one area of the Caribbean could be thawed and crossed with coral eggs of the same species in another area.

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Kim Steutermann Rogers
OneZero

I am a writer covering science nature in Hawaii. Currently, I’m working with Kauai Invasive Species Committee to save ohia, Hawaii’s native tree.