This Happy Lab Accident Could Save the World's Coral Reefs

One clumsy moment led to the discovery of something fantastic


(Volodymyr Goinyk  /

A Florida marine biologist who was about to retire discovered a remarkable breakthrough that makes coral grow 40 times faster than it grows in the wild. And it happened by accident.

Dr. Dave Vaughn, the senior scientist and program manager for coral restoration at Mote Tropical Research Center was working in his lab when he accidentally shattered a piece of coral into a lot of tiny pieces, and to his surprise discovered that instead of dying, as he assumed they would, they began to grow rapidly.

This was his Eureka moment, or eureka mistake, as he told the BBC. “I thought it was going to die and be very stressed. Instead, it grew like the dickens.”

All the pieces of coral regrew to their original size in only three weeks. It would have taken three years in the wild.

The new method was named micro-fragmenting and fusion because the pieces will fuse together to form one large coral. The method is so successful that the researchers are producing coral faster than they can get tanks to hold it. The lab tested this method on all the species of coral found on the Florida Reef, and it worked on all of them.

Corals naturally take 25 to 75 years to reach sexual maturity because they grow very slowly and traditionally, coral restoration can take many years according to Vaughn. "It took us six years to produce 600 corals. Now with micro-fragmentation we can cut and produce 600 corals in one afternoon."

Coral Reefs are highly diverse ecosystems that are vital for the communities that surround them. According to The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) more than 450 people live within 60 kilometers of coral reefs and the majority derive food or income from them. Coral reefs cover less than one percent of the ocean floor but support 25 percent of marine life. Coral reefs, when properly managed, can yield 15 tons of fish and seafood per square kilometer per year.

"There is an immediate threat to coral reefs due to climate change. We have lost 25 to 40 percent of the world's coral," Vaughn told BBC. But now, "we might be able to take two resistant strains that are very tolerant of the future conditions [warmer, more acidic oceans] and cross the two and make one that is even more resistant," he said.

He added that he has postponed his retirement until he sees a million coral reefs replanted on the Florida Reef.

The research team at Mote Tropical plans on planting 100,000 corals on the Florida reef in the coming year and to teach this new method to conservationists around the world so that other coral reefs can be repopulated by the same method.

It is very possible that Vaughn will see the Florida Reef restored to the way he remembers it in his lifetime. All from one oops moment.

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