by Chelsey Lucas
CORAL REEFS ARE IN DANGER FROM CLIMATE CHANGE, overfishing, pollution and habitat loss, affecting oceanic ecosystems and economies of coastal cities. Dr. Dave Vaughan, executive director of the Mote Tropical Research Laboratory in Summerland Key, Fla., has discovered a method of regrowing coral at an extraordinarily fast pace, and it was completely by accident.
During a regular tank cleaning, Vaughan, 61, broke a piece of the delicate coenosarc—the hollow connective tubes of corals—leaving behind a few polyps. “I thought they’d never make it,” he says, but upon examination two weeks later the polyps had grown together about the distance of a thumbnail. In nature, that same growth would normally take about two years. He experimented again by cutting polyps from another coral into small fragments, a process he termed “microfragmenting.”
“It’s like skin,” he says. “The skin on our hands grows slowly, but if you scrape it, it heals over in about a week. We think something similar is happening to the corals.” And the new corals he’s growing are proving to be more resilient to conditions like warmer water temperatures and ocean acidification.
“Microfragmenting is so new and such good news that it’s hard for most to realize its potential,” he says. “I have a personal goal of planting 1 million corals in the keys and I hope to do it before I retire.” ■