• Global Coral Repository A Seed Bank for Corals

    GCR Logo

    Yesterday I had the pleasure if speaking with Dr. Craig Downs, Executive Director of the Global Coral Repository in Clifford, VA.  Craig and I discussed numerous topics from coral husbantry to climate change, ocean acidification and much more.  We are very interested in the various endevors and research that Craig and the Global Coral Reef Repository are involved with and we hope you may consider visiting their website.  They are a non-profit organization so keep that in mind if you are interested in making a contribution to their efforts.

    Below is an article that Dr. Downs sent to us.  At a later date we will post more articles on the Aquarium Specialty Blog.


    In Norway there is a massive vault that contains millions of seeds. The goal is to gather duplicate samples from seed banks of contributing nations. This is the world’s seed safety net.

    It’s in the northernmost town in the world, Svalbard, Norway, where there are more reindeer than people. The vault is a chilly -18 C (that’s about 0 degrees F). Stocking caps are required.

    Their website says that loss of biological diversity is one of the greatest challenges we face. Increasing pressure on food crops from wars, weather and people are taking a toll on the production of food.

    The intent is to build the capacity to refurbish lost seed stocks when needed. Their website is very interesting: Google Svalbard Global Seed Vault to take look at the facility. Make sure your garbanzo beans are safely tucked away here: http://www.croptrust.org/

    That’s wonderful for the land, but what about the ocean? That is being addressed as we speak. If you think the frozen seed vault in Norway is cool (no pun intended), you ain’t seen nothin’ yet! The Global Coral Repository (TGCR) is designed to catalog and store coral samples, in much the same way as the seed vault stockpiles duplicate seeds.

    I had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Craig Downs, the leading organizer of TGCR, and a prolific researcher on reef ecology, from the Keys to Micronesia. Dr. Downs’ Haereticus Environmental Laboratory, in Virginia, is the keystone organization that developed TGCR in partnership with the Zoological Society of London and the University of Oxford. See www.coralrepository.org.

    The repository consists of multiple locations: Virginia, Oxford and regional locations all will house samples, cryogenically stored. Redundant storage ensures the safety of the coral samples.

    One of the most interesting, and quite frankly, disturbing, images on the TGCR website is a set of two images from Carysfort reef. The 1975 shot shows a healthy elkhorn reef. The 2004 shot demonstrates what colossal degradation has occurred over time. This is a serious condition. As you may recall, much of this was covered in the Conditions Report from the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

    Reef Damage

    Dr. Downs taught me about the sampling technique and the importance of each individual sample. Not only the sample taken, but the divot created when the sample is extracted. Each sample will have to pass a health test to be included in the repository. This includes monitoring the biopsy site. A healthy coral will quickly fill the divot from the biopsy — at about 1 millimeter of growth per day.

    The samples also will document a genetic and geographical map. This has law enforcement implications, since TGCR can tell where a coral originated in a legal dispute to comply with international trade laws.

    The process Dr. Downs described in our discussion consists of three phases: Investigation — Mitigation — Restoration.

    Taking the sample — Investigation — yields analytical results down to the molecular level of the coral and the zooxanthellae living in the coral. Playing nurse and clinician to the coral tells researchers much more than the current state of health. It shows the sources of weakness or disease and helps isolate causes for the coral’s troubles.

    Once the causes are known, TGCR can make recommendations on the next phase — Mitigation. There are so many things affecting coral it would fill the rest of this edition of the paper to list them. I got lost quickly trying to wrap my head around that list. I will be following up in a month or so on a topic generated during our discussion that will be of great interest. As soon as he releases the data, I will report back to you.

    In the final phase — Restoration — TGCR’s work looks at the genome of the coral and the water quality, water flow rates and lighting conditions of a potential restoration area. Between the biology of the samples and the quality of the restoration site, TGCR can predict outcomes of the restoration effort and identify specific coral genomes that provide the highest probability of success for restoration. No point in planting coral in an area that does not provide the capacity for growth.

    My scientist-for-the-day experience came when my pal Frazier Nivens asked me to shoot the stills while he captured the video for the coral sample extraction process. Our local talent and resident scientists, John and Judy Halas, executed the script wonderfully, fully documenting the scientific procedure for taking coral samples for evaluation. Joe Cianciolo was our first mate and equipment manager for the day.

    We began by identifying three stands of coral for sampling. Each biopsy was taken with a new, sterile set of instruments and packaged — gloves and all — in a separate collection bag. In addition to the extraction process, we shot the scientists photographing the extraction site, and then each individual puncture. After the extraction, the site is filled with inert modeling clay to protect the coral from infection.

    This is intense work that demands concentration and attention to detail. Fortunately, we had calm waters and decent visibility. For a scientist working on a day with lots of surge or current, this would be a very difficult task. It gave me a new understanding and appreciation for the effort these folks expend on behalf of studying and protecting our submerged resources.

    The film and images will be used to train other scientists worldwide on the procedure. It was a long day, and hard work. It was also a great feeling to contribute to a worldwide effort for coral restoration. Once again, the Keys are front and center, demonstrating a leading position for reef preservation.

    Tim Grollimund is a freelance photographer and PADI divemaster based in Key Largo. He can be reached at [email protected] or through his web site at www.timgimages.com. Tim is actively involved with the Coral Restoration Foundation and the Aquarius Foundation.