3D-printed coral mimics nature

3D-printed coral
3D-printed coral | Image: University of Cambridge

Researchers at Cambridge and UC San Diego 3D-print a bionic coral

Let’s begin by explaining what coral is. Is it a plant? Is it an animal? Well, a little of both…

On any coral reef algae is busy converting the strong, tropical sunlight, via photosynthesis, to food. This is both for themselves and the tiny animals they live with called polyps.

Each polyp secretes a hard exoskeleton made up of calcium carbonate and a chalky internal skeleton that stays in place even after they die, millions and millions of these make up a coral reef.

The hard coral lets in light, enough so the algae that live within it can photosynthesise. The polyps feed both from their surroundings and the algae.


Together, this symbiotic living coral provides a habitat for thousands of species of marine life — animals that form a vital link in the food chain that hundreds of millions of people rely on for their daily sustenance. Those little algae may seem insignificant, but without them many people would die of malnutrition.

We developed an artificial coral tissue and skeleton with a combination of polymer gels and hydrogels doped with cellulose nano-materials to mimic the optical properties of living corals, cellulose is an abundant bio-polymer. It is excellent at scattering light and we used it to optimise delivery of light into photosynthetic algae

Silvia Vignolini, Department of Chemistry at Cambridge

A custom-made 3D-bioprinter uses light to print coral micro-scale structures. These imitate natural coral structures and light-harvesting properties, creating an artificial host micro-environment for the living microalgae. The coral inspired structures are highly efficient at redistributing light, just like natural corals.

Infographic on threats to coral reefs

This development is not seen as a way to restore dying coral reefs, but rather as a way to create reef-like structures that can be studied in the laboratory. That could lead to a better understanding of the ecosystem in which the coral-algae partnership thrives and how it can be nurtured. The knowledge gained, in turn, could help rescue coral reefs around the world from further damage and deterioration.

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10 facts about coral…

  1. Coral reefs protect wildlife
    ‘Barrier’ reefs get their name because they protect shallow warm waters from the open sea. This protection creates an important habitat for many types of tropical fish and rare plants.

2. There are three different types of coral reef Coral reefs can be divided into three types:

  • fringing reefs
  • barrier reefs
  • atolls.

Fringing reefs are close to shore, whereas a barrier reef will lie further out to sea. Often, atolls will be mistaken for islands because they are so large and generally appear on the rim of a lagoon.

3. Coral needs sunlight to grow
Coral needs sunlight to grow, which is why they thrive in shallow water. As a result, you’re unlikely to find a coral reef deeper than 45 feet. Furthermore, they also tend to prefer tropical seas, as the sea water is warmer and clearer.

4. Large reefs are thousands of years old
Large, visible reefs like the Great Barrier Reef in Australia are between 5,000 and 10,000 years old. Over time, the Great Barrier Reef has grown to include 900 smaller reefs and cover 2,600 miles crossing 500 islands.

5. Coral reefs make the sea bed more stable
Coral reefs improve the structural integrity of the sea bed. This is because they encourage the growth of seagrasses and other sea plants. The more plant life there is on the sea bed, the better it is held together. This reduces the impact of storms and tidal surges, preventing the erosion of the shoreline.

a coral reef

6. Coral cleans the water
Coral reefs also promote better water quality. The plants, animals, and organisms act as a filter, trapping debris that makes the surrounding environment cleaner. Subsequently, coral reefs tend to grow larger in areas with stronger currents as the wave patterns deliver more nourishment to the ecosystem.

7. Reefs are important nesting grounds
The calm, warm waters around coral reefs mean they are an important mating habitat for fish and other sea creatures. These protected environments create a safe-haven for eggs, keeping them safe from predators. Furthermore, the abundance of seagrass makes coral reefs important nurseries for marine mammals like dugongs.

8. The algae on a coral reef is an animal The algae that usually covers the surface of coral isn’t a plant, it’s a living organism. There are many different types of algae, from microscopic creatures to varieties with brightly-colored leaf-like tendrils. Furthermore, a microscopic variety of algae called Benthic Diatoms contribute a significant proportion to a reef’s dense biomass.

9. Coral reefs can treat cancer
Scientists have discovered that organisms within coral reefs can be used to treat cancer and other illnesses. For example, by studying coral reefs, scientists have been able to develop proteins that attack cancer cells.

10. Reefs can help to manage global warming
The last of our fun facts about coral reefs concerns their vital role in managing the planet’s carbon dioxide levels. As a giant, living, breathing organism, they are essential to regulating carbon dioxide levels in the ocean. Therefore, these ecosystems play an important role in managing the effects of global warming.

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What you can do to help protect coral reefs…

Infographic on protecting coral reefs


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