3D-Printed Reefs Propose Hope In Coral Bleaching Crisis

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The news on coral reefs alternates between hope and doom. Reefs are among the most fragile ecosystems on the planet and essential to marine life. They are very sensitive to climate change and are dying at a dramatic rate. According to a report published earlier this year in Nature’s Scientific Reports By the century’s end, virtually every reef in the ocean will suffer annual life-threatening bleaching events. Australian scientists who surveyed the Great Barrier Reef last month now say the world’s largest coral reef system, which lost about a fourth of its coral last year in its worst-ever bleaching event, aspects another bleaching problem this year that could be even worse.

But and here’s the hope fake reefs may be less vulnerable to climate change and more long-lasting in the changing ocean chemistry than natural reefs. Scientists are using 3D-printing technology that helps them to create fake reefs mimicking the architectural structure and texture of natural reefs in ways that haven’t been achieved in prior restoration efforts. Experimental installations of these 3D-printed reefs are now going on in the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, Australia and the Persian Gulf. If they succeed in the coming years in luring not only fish but also baby coral polyps, which attach themselves to structures and multiply, they can grow into new reefs and restore some of the most important habitats on Earth.

‘How To Print a Reef?’

3D-printing technology dates to the 1980s and has been compared in importance with the transformative inventions of the Industrial Revolution. This technology can be used to make everything from jewelry to human kidneys to auto parts made with human cells that have been successfully transplanted. 3D printing edged its way into wildlife in the early 2000s. Dudley, a duck who lived in British Columbia, Canada, and lost a fight with a chicken, was given a prosthetic leg.

The first 3D reef was sunk off Bahrain in the Persian Gulf in 2012. Coral reefs are constructed by colonies of millions of tiny coral polyps, which are animals that port algae-like organisms called zooxanthellae within their tissue. Both are mutually dependent. Coral provides a protective home for the algae; the zooxanthellae feed essential nutrients to the coral. Artificial reefs are not new. They have been made of sunken shipwrecks, old tires, plastic, concrete blocks and old cars all heaped onto the ocean floor in hopes that fish and other marine life organisms will come to call them home. A statue of Christ stands encrusted with corals beneath the surface of the Florida Keys. But many of these artificial reefs fail because they don’t really fit in with their surroundings. On the other hand, a 3D-printed reef recreates crannies and nooks, protective space for fish, doors, angles and passageways that cast shade or light and enable fish to avoid predators or feed.

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