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Marine biologist’s ‘eureka mistake’

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After years of being told otherwise, David Vaughan learnt that size matters. Age, however, does not.

The 63-year-old marine biologist was working his way to retirement before he had what the New York Times dubbed his “eureka mistake” in 2014.

The corals he had abandoned at the base of his aquarium after a failed experiment started reproducing. Before he knew it he had 40,000 mature boulder corals; the process usually takes between 50 and 100 years.

“Most corals do not mature and do not start being reproductive until they are 25 to 75 years old,” Dr Vaughan said.

“What we found is that size matters and not age.

“When they fuse together, to the size of a 50-year-old coral, they become reproductive and produce coral larvae in captivity at just one to two years old. That would have taken decades.”

He was propelled into the limelight in January after the American Association of Retired People made a video highlighting his efforts. Dr Vaughan was named one of 25 “people who have busted the myth that you have to slow down after a certain age, retire and do nothing”.

The video garnered more than 160,000 views on the first day, reaching one million in less than a week.

Today, it has more than 16 million views.

Life since, has been “crazy” with more than 100 e-mails and as many as 1,000 comments on Facebook every day.

His “fans” fall under “three different categories”.

“One is retired people that said they were inspired. They want to do something now they see that you don't have to sit home on a rocking chair.

“The others are very young people wanting to know what they can do to be a marine biologist when they grow up.

“And the third category want to come and volunteer at our lab and want to learn how to do this full-time, for their country or their island or their coral reefs.”

TEDx Bermuda organiser Sophie Mathew was one of those who saw the video.

Dr Vaughan's talk — which he named Sexccess on the Reef — at the Fairmont Southampton on Saturday covered his work on reproduction technology and his “microfragmentation” technique.

“I figure it would get some people's interest,” he laughed about the title.

The journey to his recent success actually began a decade ago when he successfully grew 11 test-tube baby corals out of a million eggs. After a year of growth, they were smaller than the head of a pencil eraser.

It was another three to four years before they were the size of a larger coin.

Disappointed, he took them off elevated racks and placed them on the bottom of the aquarium and forgot about them.

“Unbeknown to me they had grown, and attached to the bottom of the aquarium. When I went to move them they were stuck. I tugged on one and it broke.

“I thought I was really going to hurt the coral.

“Not only did it survive but it grew back the tissue of a large coin size in just a couple of weeks.”

It had previously taken two years for his test-tube coral to get to that size, Dr Vaughan said.

“It's similar to our skin in that our skin grows normally very slowly, but if we fall down and lose some of our skin, it quickly grows back and heals in a few weeks.

“Instead of taking something that would be a couple of inches in size and waiting two years, we take that same size coral colony and cut it into 20 to 100 tiny pieces.

“Now we'll produce 600 pieces in an afternoon and in a few months I'll have hundreds, if not thousands, of corals ready to plant back on the coral reef.

“What started as an accident is now the new hopeful technology for growing large amounts of the massive corals in large numbers, in a short period of time.”

The scientist, who is executive director of the Mote Tropical Research Laboratory in Florida, hopes to plant a million coral in three years.

He describes the discovery as “a new lease on life”.

“It used to be in the United States that at 60 or 62 you could retire and 65 was usually the top end. Now it's more like 65 to 70 and who knows what it will be in the future.

“Too many of my older friends got to 62 or 65 and then stopped and did nothing. A lot of them get very depressed or kind of wither away.

“You have to keep both the mind active and the body active or else both start to just fade on. Now I can't retire because there are such neat, new technological breakthroughs that I've got to show people and train people so that they can grow corals all over the world.”

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Published March 27, 2017 at 9:00 am (Updated March 27, 2017 at 11:52 am)

Marine biologist’s ‘eureka mistake’

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