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Fish tanks and public aquariums the world over use live coral and the species that live on it to help maintain water quality. But excessive harvesting of coral for this trade is unsustainable and can devastate reefs.

Now villagers in Fiji are creating an environmentally sound alternative. They are suspending synthetic rock-like structures in the sea, where they are colonised by seaweeds and creatures usually found on reefs. After eight months underwater, the villagers harvest the 'living' rocks and sell them to aquariums.

The project, initiated by scientists from the US Georgia Institute of Technology, encourages coastal communities to conserve their local reef ecosystems, reports Jane Sanders.

This is important for the villagers who rely on the reef to make a living. But it also means scientists can seek new drugs to combat diseases such as cancer and AIDS from species found on coral reefs.

Tropical reefs hold the greatest promise, says Sanders, because they are so diverse and many species living on them have evolved complex defence systems, involving chemicals that could have a therapeutic value.

Villagers will ultimately get a share of profits from sales of drugs researchers develop from species living on the reefs.

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