December 3, 2023

Building Better Reefs

For LEGO® lovers, spending money on copious amounts of plastic bricks causes an environmental conundrum. After all, the LEGO® Group designs bricks to last for generations. Additionally, they produce billions of plastic bricks each year. While most AFOLs never dream of tossing their bricks, beach clean-up crews consistently find LEGO® bricks around the world. Plastic in our oceans is a problem. In fact, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates eight million tons of plastic wind up in marine ecosystems each year. While LEGO® bricks are a tiny fraction of that, they still contribute to the 30 million tons of plastic mankind produces annually. They also contribute to microplastics and leeched chemicals in ocean ecosystems. But what if old LEGO® bricks went to a better use? Researchers in Singapore are doing just that. Using LEGO® bricks, they are building better reefs by farming coral.

Building better reefs by farming coral on LEGO® bricks.
Coral growing on LEGO® bricks. Photo compliments of the TMSI of the National University of Singapore.

LEGO® bricks find unexpected use in coral reef restoration.

Singapore once boasted over 100 km2 of coastal coral reefs. However, urbanization since the 1960s has taken its toll. Today, Singapore retains somewhere between 13 – 15 km2 of reef ecosystems. Additionally, modern coral reefs exist in areas of heavy human activity, like shipping. In an effort to restore coral ecosystems, the Tropical Marine Science Institute (TMSI) of the National University of Singapore has taken to farming coral in fibreglass tanks. Researchers are developing new techniques for the sustainable production of coral to support research, conservation, and the aquarium trade. TMSI researchers shared with us how LEGO® bricks found an interesting use in this important work. Spearheading this effort are Dr. Mei Lin Neo, Dr. Jani Thuaibah Isa Tanzil, and Mr. Wei Long Ow Yong. Neo and Tanzil are senior research fellows at the TMSI, while Ow Yong is a research assistant there.

Mr. Wei Long Ow Yong of the TMSI showing vertical coral farming technique using LEGO® bricks.
Mr. Wei Long Ow Yong, an AFOL and research assistant at the TMSI. Photo compliments of the TMSI of the National University of Singapore.

Researchers at the Tropical Marine Science Institute in Singapore are farming coral using LEGO® bricks.

Interestingly, LEGO® runs deeper than pure work for the trio. In fact, each admits to having brand favorites. For Neo, growing up watching Sesame Street made her partial to 123 Sesame Street (21324). For Tanzil, it is Dr. Who (21304). On the other hand, Ow Yong professes to a life-long LEGO® passion. Growing up building Technic and Bionicle, he developed a love for the brick. “I definitely consider myself an AFOL,” says Ow Yong. “I started playing with LEGO® bricks early in my childhood when given a jumbo box of assorted LEGO® bricks to play with. For me, the draw of LEGO® was that I could build whatever I wanted. That allowed me to materialize the stories I had in my head when I was playing.” Ow Yong also maintains that his childhood LEGO® experiences helped him to understand the strengths and weaknesses of using bricks in research.

Dr. Jani Thuaibah Isa Tanzil, senior research fellow at the TSMI is helping build better reefs.
Dr. Jani Thuaibah Isa Tanzil, senior research fellow at the TSMI. Photo compliments of the TMSI of the National University of Singapore.

However, the concept of LEGO® bricks for coral restoration was not new. “Coral scientists have been using LEGO® for experimental setups for quite some time,” Tanzil explains, “and it’s something we have used for several years now. Having said that, the use of LEGO® for culturing corals in an aquarium setting with a vertical farming format is something new, we reckon. This really started out as just an idea in passing. It was taken up as serious challenge by one of the research assistants on the project (Ow Yong) – who really has been the one to make it work with his boundless creativity! But the way LEGO® works makes it easy, because the blocks can be configured (and reconfigured) in a multitude of ways and used many times over!”

Corals grow on LEGO® bricks in aquaria to support research and eventual transplantation in the wild.

Building better reefs through vertical coral farming using LEGO® bricks.
Building better reefs using vertical coral farming. Photo compliments of the TMSI of the National University of Singapore.

The project runs out of the St. John’s Island National Marine Laboratory (SJINML) research aquarium facilities. It is the only offshore marine research station in Singapore. The site functions as a hub for research and education. According to Tanzil: “the SJINML supports multi-disciplinary and multi-institution research. SJINML boasts shared facilities which include climate-controlled aquaria, large seawater flow through tanks, a seawater current flume and various laboratories capable of supporting a variety of multidisciplinary research. With high-capacity flow-through systems, SJINML’s aquarium facilities are able to supply seawater of the same quality as surrounding open waters.”

Coral growing on LEGO® suspended in an aquarium.
Coral growing on LEGO® bricks suspended in an aquarium. Photo compliments of the TMSI of the National University of Singapore.

However, despite having access to open ocean water, researchers confine the LEGO® work to aquaria for obvious reasons. There is enough plastic in the ocean already. Corals grow in fibreglass tanks employing flow-through seawater systems. The process involves fragmenting existing coral into smaller pieces. Coral can reproduce asexually, allowing fragments to grow into larger specimens. Subsequently, researchers can fragment these cultivated corals again to begin the process anew. The farmed coral currently supports research but may support ecosystem restoration projects down the line.

LEGO® bricks provide a stable base on which coral can grow.

Building better reefs by growing coral on LEGO® bricks in salt water aquaria.
Coral growing on LEGO® bricks suspended in an aquarium. Photo compliments of the TMSI of the National University of Singapore.

In terms of actual LEGO® bricks, the project currently uses 2×4, 2×6 and 2×8 standard fare. “The idea of using LEGO® bricks came about when Dr. Tanzil wanted to attach corals onto something stable but easily movable at the same time,” explains Ow Yong. “She showed me how other marine scientists have used LEGO® bricks in their experimental work. Initially, we had used LEGO® as simple stands for our coral fragments, but since LEGO® is so versatile, I thought why stop there? We began using it to create a variety of structures to cater to our research needs! LEGO® bricks are modular – allowing us to detach and fix them in place when we need to. They are durable and reusable, and most importantly they are user friendly.”

Coral growing on a blue 2x4 LEGO® brick.
Building better reefs one 2×4 LEGO® brick at a time. Photo compliments of the TMSI of the National University of Singapore.

“We are still in the experimentation phase,” says Neo. “The goals of this project are not the conservation and restoration of coral reefs, which entails the transplantation of cultured corals.” However, the techniques developed by the research at SJINML may lead to that end. “While not part of the current mariculture project,” Tanzil adds, “past efforts and future plans include planting the corals onto stable artificial structures deployed in degraded reef areas or novel habitats, for example seawalls.”

Building better reefs by growing coral on LEGO® bricks. Photo compliments of the TMSI of the National University of Singapore.

Culturing coral on LEGO® bricks is a small piece in a larger puzzle.

Tanzil goes on to explain that this particular project aims to develop techniques. “Our current project is not only trying to find solutions that will allow us to scale up coral culture in Singapore, but also other important threatened reef organisms. I see the work we do as a small puzzle piece in the larger seascape of past and ongoing efforts in Singapore and follow up from decades of other coral research and local reef restoration projects.”

Dr. Mei Lin Neo with a clam specimen. Photo compliments of the TMSI of the National University of Singapore.

Neo adds: “Apart from the coral restoration work mentioned, my work looks at repopulating coral reefs with other endangered marine invertebrates such as the giant clams. We often put a lot of attention on the corals as they are foundational species of the habitat, but the other reef-associated organisms are as important to supporting the ecological functions. Like corals, I also am studying how to improve the production of cultured organisms in the lab through experimental approaches. These studies in the lab form the basis for how we can translate into large-scale applications such as restocking the cultured giant clams to the reefs.”

Photo compliments of the TMSI of the National University of Singapore.

LEGO® bricks may in building better reefs the world over one day.

LEGO® bricks inspire people in many ways. From building structures and creating art to scientific exploration. Here, we have a fascinating application of the latter. Researchers have found a positive environmental application for bricks in developing techniques that may lead to building better reefs the world over. “With the ubiquitous nature of LEGO,” says Ow Yong, “[these techniques] can be easily applied to coral growing anywhere from research facilities to home aquariums.” According to Ow Yong, the LEGO® research does not end there either. “Moving forward, we are going to explore the use of more LEGO® elements that can better suit our purposes!” This is yet another example of how childhood play can help inspire future good.

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