Weekly Sponge-date 7 – The Final Sponge-down

This marks my final sponge-date! What a ride it has been! When I first started this blog, I was dubious about its topic. I wondered – what is so interesting about sponges? Is there enough to write about? Ah, how ignorant and naive. I was surprised when they looked somewhat different to this fellow:

Sponge bob square pants (a popular children's cartoon character)
Sponge bob square pants (a popular children’s cartoon character)

Truth is, I have been amazed by what I have found. In the deep murky depths of the internet was a thriving community of sponge enthusiasts. The information I plundered filled the sponge-shaped gap in my life I never knew existed. I have been reassured by the friendly welcoming nature of the venus flower basket sponge to next be intimidated by the weird, yet magnificent killer harp sponge. I have read about the sheer age of individual sponges with awe and trembled at how long the species has been on this planet (it makes the human race look like a mere developing foetus!). I now geek out about an all-new super hero who is a powerful combination of sponge and man (Sponge-man would kick Spiderman’s behind!). Finally I have been fascinated by the diverse nature of the sponge body plan and would happily spend hours staring at them in my spare time!

It has been a rollercoaster! Sad though it may seem, of all the organisms living in extreme habitats, I ended up being glad I chose sponges. May the sponge be with you!

Weekly Sponge-date 6 – The Exceeding-50 Shades of Sponge

Many sponges are quite similar in that they share the feeding mechanism of straining food from the water. However, what they lack in feeding diversity, they make up for in their massive range of body shapes and colours within and between species. Ever looked out your window while trying to write an essay on salt marshes and thought – “hey that cloud looks like a Beluga whale” or “hey that cloud looks like Kim Kardashian’s bum” (probably to scale as well!). Well sponges can be a likewise distraction!

Cloud sponge
Cloud sponge (Aprocallistes vastus) This image was originally posted to Flickr by dphershman at: http://flickr.com/photos/75525471@N00/510006315.

Ironically there is actually a sponge called the cloud sponge (Aphrocallistes vastus). Due to lack of a superior simile, they do in fact look like clouds. However, they possess a vital difference. Clouds are nice to look at, but they quickly disappear. Cloud sponges are here to stay. They are one of the primary reef-building sponge species which are utilised by many organisms, long after sponges themselves die.

Picture of the Yellow Goiter Sponge
The Yellow Goiter Sponge (picture taken by the NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program)

Another example of an essential reef-building sponge is the yellow goiter sponge (Heterochone calyx). It may feed like many of its evolutionary brethren, but it looks like a gramophone. Imagine having that burst out some music in your sitting room. It would definitely add class (Hexactellida to be exact!) and provide quite the conversation piece!

Finally, another fantastic looking sponge is the stove pipe sponge (Aplysina archeri ). Technically this is a shallow water sponge species (not exactly in keeping with the overall blog theme), yet I could not resist mentioning it after seeing the photo below (COOKIES!). Forming tall tubes (5 feet high), these sponges do not stop growing in size until they die. Straws, chimneys, call these tubes what you will, there’s no denying that this is one funky looking sponge. Certainly, this sponge is a great example of the insane diversity of the sponge body plan.

An unusual natural face formation on a Stove Pipe Sponge, Aplysina archeri
Stove Pipe Sponge (Aplysina archeri) (Photo courtesy of Mauricio Handler Photography)

Sponges have even been used in art. Check out the sculptures displayed in the link below: http://www.underwatersculpture.com/environment/sponges/

Weekly Sponge-date 5 – High on Sponge

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.

Weekly Sponge-date 4 – Barrel Problems

Here is some advice that will probably never come in handy. If you ever find yourself playing hide and seek in the deep sea, your best bet is to find a barrel sponge (Demospongiae). These huge beasts of barrel can reach up to 2 metres in size, far large enough to conceal a person and stump the seeking player.

A close-up of a barrel sponge while two divers swim in the background
A barrel sponge (By w:en:Aquaimages (talk | contribs) (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons)

However, large specimens might be considered too old for a juvenile game of hide and sponge. As they only grow 1.5cm a year, you can wager that any useful hiding sponges are over 100 years old.  They can be located at a depth range of 10-120m and come in a variety of colours, becoming paler as depth increases. Their brown, red-brown or rose-purple colouration is, in part, due to the symbiotic algae within the sponges’ tissues.

Unfortunately, you’d need a time-machine to see the largest known barrel sponge. This Barrel-rog played a bit too much hide and sponge. In its prime back in the early 90s, it was 2.5m in diameter, making it quite a celebrity in Curacao (Carribean). Sadly, fame has its price and the sheer number of admirers touching the sponge infected its tissues. By 1997, it was a mere shadow of the healthy giant that it was back in the day.

Close up of barrel sponge (Xestospongia muta)
Barrel Sponge (Xestospongia muta) By Twilight Zone Expedition Team 2007, NOAA-OE . (NOAA Photo Library: reef3860) via Wikimedia Commons

On second thoughts, maybe think twice about including barrel sponges in deep water hide and seek!