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Spawning corals in the lab to save Florida’s endangered reefs

Keri O’Neil and her team with the Florida Aquarium’s Coral Conservation Program have reproduced corals at the Apollo Beach facility.
Keri O'Neil and her team at the Florida Aquarium are spawning corals in the lab in an effort to save the Florida Reef Tract.
Keri O'Neil and her team at the Florida Aquarium are spawning corals in the lab in an effort to save the Florida Reef Tract. [ Florida Aquarium ]
Published May 28, 2021

Manager & Senior Scientist Keri O’Neil and her team with the Florida Aquarium’s Coral Conservation Program were the first researchers to spawn Atlantic corals in the lab using artificial lighting and temperature cues. Working out of the aquarium’s Center for Conservation in Apollo Beach, the team has reproduced five species of corals in the lab and five more species with natural light and controlled water temperature in “greenhouses.” It’s an effort to save the 360-mile Florida Reef Tract, vital to Florida’s fishing and tourism industries.

This is the second of two parts. Last week, Ashley Riese, manager of the Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Center, discussed rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing endangered sea turtles.

O’Neil, 41, spoke with the Tampa Bay Times about corals and the need to save them.

What are corals and what do they do?

That is the number one question that we get, and I think the most important question to answer because corals are animals and people don’t know that. … They’re not plants. They’re not rocks. They’re animals. Now they don’t get up and move around, and they don’t have eyeballs. They’re kind of like an anemone. … Corals are like a community of tiny little anemones all living together. But they secrete a skeleton. So, beneath the living coral tissue, which is just on the surface, they secrete a calcium carbonate skeleton, which is basically just like a rock.

And over time, over hundreds of years, thousands of years, they just keep secreting this calcium skeleton and that is actually what builds a coral reef.

What happens if the coral dies?

The tissue is actually just on the very top, so about the top half an inch of the reef is covered in live coral tissue, and that’s where its mouth is, and they have a digestive tract, and they have little tentacles, and they can catch food and they can continue to grow. … When that surface layer dies, you’re really just left with a calcium rock, which then erodes over time because it’s not being built up by the coral anymore. …

The coral reef... is what provides all the habitat for all the other animals. It’s like the apartment complex that all the other animals live inside of. It provides the structure. When that coral dies, that structure can stay around for a little while, but eventually that structure will start to erode away and become a field of rubble… which now provides no more places for the fish to hide, no more places for the lobsters to hide, and you lose all of that essential habitat for all the other species that depend on the reef. ...

Small fish that then (become) bigger fish, like our snappers and groupers that are so important to our fisheries, our tourism, our livelihood, those species depend on the coral reef for their life cycle.

What’s threatening the reef?

Florida’s coral reefs are affected by several different major threats, and those are local pollution and then also the global threat of climate change. And both of those factors together lead to more algae growth on our reefs, more coral bleaching and more coral disease, which has caused about 90 percent of our live coral in Florida to be lost over the past several decades. …

Run-off, nutrients ... that’s a big problem for us in Florida in general. It’s not just coral reefs that are being affected by that, it’s pretty much all of our coastal ecosystems. How do we manage our wastewater appropriately? It needs to be a primary focus in the future.

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You are talking about stormwater run-off mainly.

It’s fairly straightforward to treat what’s coming through sewers and pipes and from our toilets and sinks, but trying to deal with what runs off the lands, that really has no treatment. That is the fundamental problem.

How does climate change affect the reef?

Our oceans are getting hotter every summer. Our coral reef in Florida is having repeatedly record-setting high water temperatures. Corals are bleaching almost yearly now. And they’re just not meant to handle that routine exposure to high temperatures.

They’re kind of a victim of their own circumstance because they can’t get up and move. And they’re an invertebrate animal and their body temperature is completely regulated by what’s happening around them. It’s kind of like if somebody took you as a human and for four months of the year put you in a room that’s 102 degrees.

Stony coral tissue-loss disease is a big problem. What causes it?

We don’t know exactly what pathogen or environmental factor causes stony coral tissue-loss disease, but there’s a lot of research going on in that area. It does respond to antibiotic treatment so there is a bacterial factor. But that disease has really taken us from a bad situation into a dire situation. … There are species now that won’t be able to recover on their own, that would need human intervention to be able to save some of the coral species in Florida. It’s that dire now.

What does the disease do?

It does exactly what it sounds like: it literally causes the animal tissue to separate from the skeleton and decay, and die.

What if the lab-spawned corals get the disease?

What we are doing here at the Center for Conservation is focusing on the sexual reproduction of corals, actually making the next generation of offspring. And we are doing this to simply promote the ability of these species to continue to adapt. Based upon a fundamental organism biology, you can’t adapt to a change in your environment unless you are making offspring. A lot of our coral species in Florida can no longer successfully reproduce in the wild because there are so few of them left.

So we are trying to start just by making sure that we can continue reproduction. Then once you can do that reliably – grow the babies – then you can start to look at things like, can you make a disease-resistant strain? Can you make a heat-tolerant strain? Even better, can you make a disease-resistant and heat-tolerant strain?

You can’t start to do selective breeding or managed breeding until you know how to breed them in the first place. So we’re kind of at the beginnings of a managed program for corals. Just like you would do for any endangered plant or species, you cross-breed them. You manage the reproduction of the ones that are left.

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