Florida scientists announce coral breeding breakthrough; could save global reefs

Coral reefs in Florida and around the world have been in decline because of disease and pollution, but scientists at the Florida Aquarium announced a breakthrough they believe could help turn the tide in the battle to save them. 

For the first time in a laboratory, they induced Atlantic coral to spawn. The aquarium released video of coral releasing eggs and sperm for reproduction; essentially tricked into spawning by technology.

Scientists said they were able to simulate sunrise and sunset, temperature, and even the phase of the moon -- factors scientists say prompt coral to spawn. 

"Every coral in that tank knew that it was two days after the full moon in August and it was time to spawn," said Keri O'Neil, a senior coral scientist at the Florida Aquarium.  

She says it happened Saturday at their Apollo Beach laboratory.

"Changing the world right here in the Tampa Bay region in Apollo Beach is pretty incredible," said Roger Germann, president and CEO of the aquarium.

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He says coral raised in laboratories may be used to restore reefs. 

Germann says Project Coral's breakthrough could have a worldwide impact. The Florida Aquarium partnered with Horniman Museum and Gardens in London where researchers have had similar success with Pacific coral.

O'Neil says coral from different parts of the world could be combined.

"We can actually take pieces of them, bring them into the lab, and interbreed them, which would never be possible in the wild," said O'Neil.

They may be able to breed coral that is more resistant to disease and pollution. Scientists say some types of coral off Florida, like Pillar Coral, face extinction, so time is a factor.

"While it's great to have this breakthrough, if we can't grow coral fast enough and if we can't get it to scale, we're only going to be restoring part of the reef," added Germann.

He says he'll be talking with scientists and funders to expand the research.