Here we are again. Saturday morning and Delphine is working through the phonemes… but this time I don’t have to do it! Life is good. Or even Fan-tas-tic (sorry).
A couple of days ago, Jack passed me in the kitchen and said, ‘They’re trying out IVF for re-populating coral reefs. Coral IVF.’
I stopped like I’d been shot. Coral? IVF? These two words together? He could have said other combinations like, ‘Chocolate’ and ‘You won’t get fat’ or ‘Delphine’ and ‘Special Magic Reading Pill’ and it would have had the same effect. I had to sit down. It was like he’d put up a kind of Mirror of Erised and I caught a sudden vision of myself. I could do that. Hello antsy Dumbledore.
Coral reefs are dying. If you watch the news or read newspapers, you’ll have heard about it. It’s estimated that 20% of coral reefs worldwide have already died off. This is despite corals supporting more than a million species of plants and animals. A quarter of living organisms in the oceans are found only in coral reefs. It goes without saying that if we as humans sit back and watch them bleach away and crumble, what on Earth are we going to tell our future generations? Those corals looked really good guys.. but it was one of those ‘you had to be there’ moments. Hmmm.
So that’s the corals. Now what about the IVF part? IVF or In Vitro Fertilisation is the fertilisation of gametes outside the body. This science, lab-rat part was my job before we packed up our house in London and moved to Wales. I did like being an embryologist. It was so satisfying to help couples who’d usually often been on a difficult journey before they’d got to us us. Being treated in our unit was the culmination of their long efforts to have a child of their own. And the truth is, sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. There wasn’t always a reason for why it didn’t work either.
Plenty of times, we had to give bad news, and this would be the end of this particular treatment road for some people. Couples accepted they wouldn’t be able to have a child of their own, but this didn’t mean that all their options for having a family were gone. After they left us, they’d often go on another journey of adoption and fostering and it was with heartfelt desire that we wished them the best.
Here’s the thing. I feel ambivalent about returning to this work. I’m not really sure why. Delph? Maybe. I have no regrets about being given this gift of a child (or a devil as her sister cheerfully says).. but I’m more sensitive about things now. When I worked in embryology I used to call myself a fatalist. Why? Because usually we had a line-up of embryos to choose from for re-implantation.. and at times it was impossible to choose which one was the best. So you took a guess. Or wait, I think it was officially called a professional assessment.. I don’t think there is anything wrong in guessing per se, after all there were only so many quantitative tools that were available to use without killing these precious embryos.
I’m just not sure I would want to do it now. I’m in a different position. I understand what it’s like when things go biologically wrong. It’s a long haul. The people who are trying to have their own children, I wish them the very very best. I just don’t think I want to be the one to guess anymore.
Some colleagues I used to work with in the research section of our unit felt the same way. To be honest, I scoffed at their attitude. Being ambivalent about IVF felt like the height of moral luxury. Especially when the stakes were so high for so many people willing to take their chances. I mean, try telling someone that they can’t have something so integral to our lives, something so deep within our evolutionary blueprint and watch the backlash. Oh and you might want to get out of the way.
So how do you apply the concept of corals (located outside, not super communicative) to IVF (lab-based and mostly heartfelt). I mean for a start, fertilisation between corals is not the same process as with humans, is it? That would be pretttyyy strange.
Ha! Not a million miles different it turns out. I just checked on YouTube (trained zoologist me). Corals do reproduce sexually by releasing large amounts of male gametes (coral sperm! I wonder if they look like people sperm) with female eggs. One night they are released all together from the coral into the sea, at night time and usually during a full moon. Romantic or what? They fertilise, form embryos and change into these cute, free-swimming planula larvae. After a few weeks, the larvae settle on the sea floor, find a decent spot, apply for a wifi router which is going to take weeks before the engineer can install it, pay their council tax by direct debit and set up a new calcium carbonate home.
As far as I can tell, the IVF project for corals in situ is to collect them at the spawning event and harness them together in floating booms on the sea surface. This should encourage the meet-and-greet part of coral relationships and keep the little larvae swimming until they are ready to find their own coral home. So, maybe in this case a floating, coral love-nest/nursery is a more appropriate term than an embryology lab? After all, there is no culture media, no petri dishes and no carefully-controlled incubator. This seems a definitely more low-tech situation. Where do you sign up? I AM IN.