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Great Barrier Reef Can Be Saved With 3D Printed Coral, Experts Believe

by : Cameron Frew on : 09 Apr 2020 15:30
Great Barrier Reef Can Be Saved With 3D Printed Coral, Experts BelieveGreat Barrier Reef Can Be Saved With 3D Printed Coral, Experts BelievePA Images

The Great Barrier Reef is a shadow of its former self, wrecked by over-fishing, pollution and climate change. However, 3D printing could be the solution we’ve been looking for. 

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The 1,616-mile Australian reef has been suffering in recent years at the hands of global warming, with the sea’s rising temperatures ‘bleaching’ corals en masse.

Across the ‘world’s largest living structure’, the microscopic organisms that enable its iconic vibrancy are being wiped out. But with scientists’ recent innovations in 3D printing, there may be hope for the reef yet.

Great Barrier ReefGreat Barrier ReefPA Images

Scientists have managed to create aquarium-style artificial reefs capable of growing algae. Due to their fake nature, they may be less vulnerable to climate change and more durable in the changing ocean chemistry.

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Dr Daniel Wangpraseurt, first author of the research and marine scientist at the University of Cambridge, said:

Corals are one of the most efficient organisms at using, capturing and converting light to generate energy. And they do so in extreme environments, where light is highly fluctuating and there is limited space to grow. Our goal here was to use corals as inspiration to develop more productive techniques for growing micro-algae as a form of sustainable energy.

While their work may contribute towards development of compact, more efficient bioreactors for producing green fuel, the ultimate aim is to help with coral reef restoration projects across the world.

Microalgae growing on the 3D printed coral structure The Great Barrier Reef Microalgae growing on the 3D printed coral structure The Great Barrier Reef SWNS

Despite being man-made, researchers hope the artificial reefs will lure fish and baby coral polyps, which attach themselves to structures and multiply. From there, they could grow into new, natural reefs like a chain reaction of life across Earth.

Bleaching occurs when corals become so stressed by warmer water temperatures that the algae is expelled from its tissue. This has happened so frequently on such a large scale over the past five years that only a third of the Great Barrier Reef remains intact.

In order to build the corals, Dr Wangpraseurt teamed up with Professor Shaochen Chen, a professor of nano-engineering who developed a rapid, 3D bioprinting method in his lab at the University of California.

Microalgae growing on the 3D printed coral structure The Great Barrier Reef Microalgae growing on the 3D printed coral structure The Great Barrier Reef SWNS
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In mere minutes, he’s able to reproduce detailed structures capable of mimicking the functions of living tissues with pinpoint, micrometre-scale resolution. This is absolutely essential in the efforts to restore the reefs, built upon structures with live cells.

Professor Chen explained: 

Most of these cells will die if we were to use traditional extrusion-based or inkjet 3D printing processes because these methods take hours. It would be like keeping a fish out of the water; the cells that we work with won’t survive if kept too long out of their culture media.

Our process is high throughput and offers really fast printing speeds, so it’s compatible with human cells, animal cells, and even algae cells in this case.

Amazingly, the printed corals are built to capture and scatter light even more efficiently than natural ones. In order to support coral-like tissue, the researchers constructed cup-shaped, artificial skeletons made up of a bio-compatible polymer gel called PEGDA.

Coral reefsCoral reefsPA Images

This artificial tissue consists of a gelatin-based polymer hydrogel, called GelMA, mixed with living algae cells and cellulose nano-crystals (which assist with light absorption, enabling more light to be focused onto algae cells in order to photo-synthesise more effectively).

Professor Chen and Dr Wangpraseurt are keen to push ahead with their research – it’s estimated that more than 90% of living coral will dissipate from central and southern parts of the Great Barrier Reef by the end of the decade.

Despite only covering 1% of the planet, coral reefs provide a home for more than a quarter of all marine life, as well as being an extraordinary natural resource for medicines, food and even work. Without urgent action, the reef could be gone by 2050, experts warn.

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Cameron Frew

After graduating from Glasgow Caledonian University with an NCTJ and BCTJ-accredited Multimedia Journalism degree, Cameron ventured into the world of print journalism at The National, while also working as a freelance film journalist on the side, becoming an accredited Rotten Tomatoes critic in the process. He's now left his Scottish homelands and took up residence at UNILAD as a journalist.

Topics: Science, Australia, Climate Change, Coral Reefs, Environment, Global Warming, Great Barrier Reef, Nature, Sealife, Technology