Florida Aquarium's coral breeding program success prompts major expansion

For the first time ever, scientists at the Florida Aquarium were successful in prompting Atlantic Coral to reproduce in a laboratory.

The breakthrough earlier this summer is now being followed by plans to greatly expand the program in hopes of repopulating the dying reef in the Florida Keys.

Biologist Emily Williams is one of several working to grow coral larvae in the lab.

"We've raised them since they were first born," says Williams. "We think of them as our babies."

Dr. Amber Whittle, director of conservation at the aquarium showed us blueprints for six new buildings that will hold greenhouses, labs, and a visitors center at the Center For Conservation, near TECO's Big Bend Power Plant in Apollo Beach. She estimates the cost at over $6 million, which will include private donations, state, and federal funding. Whittle says they hope to have it finished within 18 months.

"I absolutely think we can play a part in saving the coral reef. I think this is the only way to do that," said Whittle.

Image 1 of 5

In the meantime, biologists are growing more than 20 varieties of corals in the lab, including Pillar Coral, which is virtually extinct in waters around Florida.

LINK: Florida scientists announce coral breeding breakthrough; could save global reefs

They grow coral larvae that then adhere to ceramic. In the future, they hope to attach them to reefs in the Keys that have been devastated by disease.

However, Whittle says measures need to be taken to make waters cleaner or the new coral won't survive.

Scientists believe pollution and climate change have contributed to diseases that have killed much of the coral around the Keys.