Colorful 3D printed corals prove a housing hit with fish in Red Sea

As coral reefs decline worldwide in the face of global warming, pollution and harvesting for aquaria, Israeli scientists pioneer creation of corals made of bioplastic

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Research divers implant 3D printed corals in the Red Sea as part of a study being carried out by Ben Gurion University's Marine Biology and Biotechnology Program and the Design-Tech Lab at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology. (Jenny Tynyakov)
Research divers implant 3D printed corals in the Red Sea as part of a study being carried out by Ben Gurion University's Marine Biology and Biotechnology Program and the Design-Tech Lab at the Technion Israel Institute of Technology. (Jenny Tynyakov)

As coral reefs the world over suffer in the face of climate change, pollution and harvesting for aquaria, researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) and Haifa’s Technion-Israel Institute of Technology are experimenting with 3D printed corals, and finding that fish species that can see color prefer bright designs to dull ones.

The project is the first known attempt to accurately simulate the structure and functionality of natural living corals, taking into account factors such as water flow around the coral structures, sizes that fit the diversity of fish species and proximity to food (plankton).

Coral reefs provide a home for 25 percent of all marine fish species. With the aim of ascertaining what kind of coral makes a “good home” and which designs the fish prefer, the team used 3D design tools to scan natural coral colonies, then structurally and spatially manipulated the scans before printing the artificial ones. They experimented with different materials and printers, ultimately whittling the possibilities down to four different forms of printed corals made of sustainable bioplastic, in several colors.

The corals were then attached to a reef at the northeastern coast of the Red Sea, close to the Inter-University Institute for Marine Sciences in Eilat. The biologists then visited over several months to track colonization of the models by real fish.

They found that the fish readily accepted the 3D printed corals, and even preferred some designs and colors over real living ones.

“We were surprised to discover that color mattered,” Prof. Nadav Shashar of BGU’s Marine Biology and Biotechnology Program said. “Humans don’t take into account the outside colors of a house when deciding to buy one, perhaps because they can repaint it. Fish, on the other hand, indicated that the color of their potential new home was a make or break factor. Fish species that can see colors showed a clear preference for colored shelters over dull ones.”

Fish and coral photographed in the Red Sea near Eilat. (Courtesy Maoz Fine)

Prof. Shashar said staff from the Technion’s Design-Tech Lab, headed by Prof. Ezri Tarazi, played an important role by coming up with speedy solutions to problems as they arose. “No discipline alone can address these challenges,” Shashar noted.

The project’s findings were reported in The Design Journal.

In their next stage of study, the researchers will design large reef units rather than single corals. “We want to understand what makes some structures work better than others,” Shashar said. “Our approach highlights the potential of tackling environmental challenges through design. Using digital design tools and methods, we can help the global effort to find better future practices to protect and restore coral reefs that are rapidly being annihilated.”

Prof. Tarazi said that “Nature-Centered Design” is a new approach to colossal environmental challenges such a the decline of coral reefs.

Corals in the Red Sea appear to be faring much better than the same or similar species elsewhere, demonstrating relatively high resistance in experiments to increased temperatures and acidification — conditions expected to prevail in the future as the planet warms.

Earlier this year, it was announced that Israel had joined Jordan, Egypt, Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti, Saudi Arabia and Yemen in a unique regional research program to understand why. Israel only has diplomatic relations with Jordan, Egypt and Eritrea. The project is being carried out under the aegis of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne.

A branching coral spawns pinkish bundles of eggs and sperm that are carried away by the currents. (Tom Shlesinger)

But in other research, by Prof. Yossi Loya and PhD candidate Tom Shlesinger of Tel Aviv University’s School of Zoology, ocean warming and pollution appear to be changing the extraordinary way in which corals synchronize the release of eggs and sperm, leading to declining growth rates.

Among the most diverse and productive ecosystems on the planet, coral reefs provide a framework and home for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of other species. They are the largest living structure on the planet, and the only one that can be seen from space.

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