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Sea Urchin Grown In Lab For First Time Could Help Coral Reefs Survive

Charley Westbrook, a graduate student from the University of Hawaii, teamed up with the cryopreservation and aquaculture team from the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute to successfully grow a tropical sea urchin from cryopreserved embryos. This major feat has sparked excitement among the team, and it is hoped that the creation of the sea urchin will help to support the long-term survival of coral reefs.

Image of a juvenile the first collector sea urchin, Tripneustes gratilla, derived from a cyropreserved embryo, one week after settlement and metamorphosis. Image Credits: Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute.

Working together, the team and Charley cryopreserved the embryos (freezing or cooling them at low temperatures for preservation). They stored the embryos for several months before thawing them and feeding them a diet of phytoplankton. This allowed the embryos to eventually develop into healthy and functioning sea urchins, a stage that was encouraging for the team to see. Now, they hope that they can scale up production rates using cryopreservation techniques.

“I’m super stoked! There were many crucial steps in the cryopreservation protocol and rearing process. Every new developmental stage reached by the embryos and larvae was an extremely encouraging success for me,” said Charley Westbrook, who played a vital role in the project.

Sea urchins are arguably vital for reefs, as they help to support reef resilience by grazing algae and providing settlement space for corals. By creating and maintaining the conditions necessary for coral reefs to thrive, urchins help to support reef recovery after events such as bleaching or storms.

The team hopes that the creation of their tropical sea urchins from cryopreserved embryos will help to boost warm water coral restoration efforts, for example in Hawaii or the Bahamas. Other methods such as coral IVF have also shown promising results for helping to support the restoration of coral reefs, with the Great Barrier Reef even seeing their highest coral coverage rates in 36 years. Combining these two methods may heighten the effects and help to further support restoration efforts. Now, the team has their sights set on scaling their project further, and hope that it can be implemented at some point in the near future.