A sponge may save your life one day. Seriously. Even though they appear to live a peaceful life rooted to the sea bed, each day is a fight and sponges have evolved to win. You might think that not being able to move is boring, but it actually makes a sponge’s life much more tasking. Despite being completely incapable of escape from predators, sponges continue to survive.
Even feeding is a dice with death. With each second, sponges voluntarily allow bacteria in to their bodies, some of which could be pathogenic viruses. Imagine drinking curdled milk or munching down on some mouldy bread without the fear of getting ill. That is how a sponge feeds.
Sponges are tough. About a hundred years ago, a man called H.V.Wilson discovered that if you squeeze a sponge through gauze and left it in that sorry state, it eventually reforms in to a functional sponge. We look at some of our favourite regenerating heroes such as Wolverine with awe, yet here is a real life example of an organism capable of this power. If us humans were to be reduced down to single-cell state, there would be no coming back.
So in essence, we want to be like sponges. Or at least we want to mimic some of the amazing properties that they have. They have a vast array of chemical-based weapons that they release on a regular basis. Sponges being overgrown by rude rival sponges have been observed to release chemicals that prevent cell division. This stunts the ability of this over-friendly sponge. Surely such a chemical could be useful in treating cancer?
That is the brain wave that Harbor Branch in Florida is riding on (check out the youtube clip above (uploaded by Changing SeasTV) to learn more about their work). They have already found a sponge (Axinella corrugata) capable of producing a chemical called Stevensine which acts as an antibiotic and has anticancer properties. By using the concept discovered by H.V.Wilson, they have concentrated on increasing the biomass of this sponge and boosting the rate at which it releases this chemical. Once manipulated, sponges can become living drug factories which can be used as a reliable source of these handy chemicals.
There are many other examples of sponges being used in some of the medicinal and cosmetic products of today. Zovirax, counteracting the symptoms of cold sores and herpes, was derived from a shallow water sponge (Cryptotethya crypta) in the mid 1950s. Estee lauder’s cosmetic line required sponges as an anti-inflammatory. They harvested them by cutting off branches, allowing the sponges to re-grow. The sheer diversity of sponges and the fact that so many species are yet to be discovered, means that the medicinal value of these kick ass organisms is literally bursting with potential.