Can Cloning Coral Save the Planet?

The process could slow down or even reverse the loss of corals around the world. Presented by Honda.

If two corals look remarkably alike, it might be because they’re clones. Coral cloning occurs by using a process called microfragmenting, where a coral is broken off of another coral and then grown to become its very own living organism.

Coral reefs are basically the rainforest of the ocean. About 25% of the ocean's fish depend on healthy coral reefs. Humans also need them. In fact, more than half a billion people depend on reefs for food, income, and protection.

But our reefs are dying. We’ve lost more than half of the world’s coral since the 1950s.

There seems to be hope, though. Increasing production of microfragmented corals could slow down or even reverse the loss of corals around the world, since they can reportedly grow 25 to 50 times faster than corals grow at their normal rate.

Private companies and government agencies are working to restore these valuable reefs and working to take certain species off the endangered list in under a decade.

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At Plant a Million Corals in Florida, Dr. David Vaughan has cloned and planted a hundred thousand corals — and it all began when he accidentally broke a coral and saw it regrow in 2006. He calls it his Eureka Mistake.

“I like to use the pizza analogy. If we take one coral the size of a pepperoni and we cut it into 20 little pepperonis, 6 months later they'll grow up to the same size,” Vaughan told NowThis. “And if we put them in a circle like a medium-sized pizza, they will grow back together in two years and will have formed a 25 to 100-year-old coral in literally two years.”

But no solution comes without its challenges. It took a long time to get scientific journals to pay attention to coral cloning, Vaughan said, and it is also difficult to scale up.

It can take anywhere from 6 weeks to 6 months to get a fiberglass tank. “We can take the corals in one tank and cut them into 20 pieces each, we now need 20 more tanks the next day. And so we're solving some of that with a new tank design,” Vaughan explained.

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Vaughan said he has seen great success in creating thriving coral reefs. “One of the places we planted was artificially placed land rocks underwater, and we planted corals on them,” Vaughan said. “And 5 years ago, there was not many fish to be seen, now there's hundreds of fish, and the sound of a reef, and sound of the invertebrate, little shrimp and things like that, so it's a living reef now.”

Vaughan said that at the rate in which Plant a Million Corals is growing, it’ll be able to hit the threshold contained in the org’s name annually beginning in late 2023.

So, can cloning coral save the planet? The process has been proven to quickly grow coral and help slow down or reverse dying coral reefs. However, it’s not a fix-all solution.

We still have a lot of other things to fix if we want even these resilient corals to survive: reducing pollution, ending overfishing, and limiting fossil fuel consumption, which would reduce carbon emissions and ocean warming.

There are some skeptics that have concerns about scalability and species diversity. On the diversity question, Vaughan said they avoid monocultures by having at least 3 to 5 genetic strains for every species when fragmenting corals, so it’s not all the same genetics.

As for being scalable: Vaughn recently edited a book, “Active Coral Restoration: Techniques for a Changing Planet,” which contains 11 case studies that seemingly indicate this process can be scaled globally. Some of the case studies show how microfragmenting works, others combine microfragmenting with technology to develop new techniques like 3-D printing reefs.

Plant a Million Corals has even created coral nurseries in a box, which it ships to other people around the world that want to develop and build their own microfragmenting systems. So if you have the right permits and conditions, you could help grow coral at home, too!