All posts by Sam

Weekly Sponge-date 8 – Welcome to the After-Sponge!

A sponge holds the secret to a better internet connection than we’ve yet experienced. That’s right, despite how far the human race has come in technology, this sponge holds the key to boosting those online streaming speeds. It carries this information within the very fibre of its being.

Once again, this refers to the famous Venus flower-basket (Euplectella). Already famous for harbouring a pair of shrimps (see the very first sponge-date), this sponge clearly loves making the headlines. The glass spicules of this deep-sea sponge are apparently akin to the fibre optics used in telecommunication. Not only are these spicules similar, but they are an improvement! Man-made fibres are weak and vulnerable to cracking, yet these naturally-formed spicules are tougher due to connecting organic ligands. Furthermore, the artificial production of fibre optics involves high temperatures which lose some helpful impurities (such as sodium). As the spicules within the Venus-flower basket are created under ambient temperatures, these impurities remain which enhances the fibres potential. This research is still in the early stages, but this once again demonstrates how much we can learn from deep-sea life!

Figure 7) Venus flower-basket (Euplectella sp.) (Wiki Commons author: NEON_ja)
Venus flower-basket (Euplectella sp.) (Wiki Commons author: NEON_ja)

Read this E journal for more information:  https://aizenberglab.seas.harvard.edu/papers/2003_Nature.pdf

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!

Weekly Sponge-date 3 – BioSponge Infinite

To say that sponges are old is the understatement of the era. They made their entrance on to earth about 600-800 million years ago. Talk about arriving to the party early. One particularly keen party sponge is so mysterious, it does not appear to have a common name. It is only known as Monorhaphis chuni. This deep sea sponge is unique in that it forms a spicule pillar that can reach up to 3m long! It uses this to anchor itself to the sediments below.

Spicule pillar of Monorhaphis chuni (Courtesy of Xiaohong Wang, Lu Gan, K P Jochum, H C. Schröder, and W E G Müller, from "The largest bio-silica structure on earth: the giant basal spicule from the deep-sea glass sponge Monorhaphis chuni," Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, article ID 540987, 2011, under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.)
Spicule pillar of Monorhaphis chuni (Courtesy of Xiaohong Wang, Lu Gan, K P Jochum, H C. Schröder, and W E G Müller, from “The largest bio-silica structure on earth: the giant basal spicule from the deep-sea glass sponge Monorhaphis chuni,” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, article ID 540987, 2011, under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.)

So how long-lived is this wise old sponge of the deep? Well, as amazing as sponges are, they cannot communicate their age without being dissected. A standard sponge aging method involves counting the dark and light rings in the sponges’ skeleton (much like aging a tree). Another way is to estimate the amount of the isotope Silicon-32 decaying within the siliceous sponges’ spicules (try saying that in a hurry!). However, these methods would not work on this spongey customer.

Fortunately, a group of scientists (Peter-Jochum et al., 2012) came up with the clever method of working out the sea temperature at the beginning of its life span. To do this, they studied an extraordinarily large spicule that was discovered 1100m deep in the East China Sea. Using the oxygen isotopic composition and Mg/Ca ratios of the spicule, they estimated that the sea temperature was 1.9 degrees when this sponge was…well…a young sponge. By comparing that to the relatively tropical temperature of 4 degrees nowadays, the scientists predicted that the spicule had been around for 11, 000 years!!.. Well give or take 3000 years, but hey, cut those hard-working nerds some slack!

Not only does this make this sponge one of the longest living animal species still in existence, its skeleton tells a tale that makes lord of the rings look like a comic book. It weaves a story of previously unknown climate change such as deep sea temperature fluctuations over millions of years. Think that the sponge information out there is saturated? This gives reason to believe that there is so much more to learn from sponges!

Weekend Sponging – Unsung Sponges

To “sponge” off somebody is frowned upon. A lazy layabout comes to mind – someone who is not willing to pull their weight and has to rely on the work or gains of other people. I think this is a very unfair use of the word “sponge”. As sessile and inactive as they look, sponges rarely stop working if the conditions are suitable. In fact, they are continuously pumping water through their system at an incredible rate. They are capable of pumping a volume of water equal to their own body volume every 5 seconds!

So next time someone accuses you of “sponging”, don’t get offended – get angry. Angry that they used the term “sponge”. Then maybe show them the video below which, by the clever use of dye, reveals the hard work carried out by sponges everywhere.

Youtube clip uploaded by ProfessorZurawski

Weekly Sponge-date 2 – The Harpbringer of Death

Think that every sponge is a happy, water-pumping shrimp-harbouring hippy? You clearly have not met the “Harp sponge” (Chondrocladia lyra).  Despite its relatively tame name, the only tune that this sponge can play is the funeral march as crustacean after crustacean meets their demise. In fact, the only resemblance this sponge has to a harp is its shape, which is specialised to catch as much prey as possible. Never fear, you’ll not encounter this “harpbringer” of doom unless you happen to be taking a casual swim at a depth of 3300m.

The human race was blissfully unaware of this monstrosity until 2012 when it was discovered by a group of scientists, causing lack of sleep for sponge enthusiasts the world over. Of course, not everyone fears harp-shaped killer sponges as I do. This sponge has actually been listed as one of the top ten species discovered in 2012, outcompeting 140 nominated species. Would I get an award if sat around ensnaring innocent crustaceans on Velcro-like hooks? I don’t think so. Though it has to be said, the ability of this sponge to ensnare and engulf captured prey by surrounding them in a digestive membrane is somewhat impressive (if a bit intimidating).

Some of the more foolharpy of you may wish to watch the above youtube clip uploaded by “LiveScienceVideos”.

Weekend Sponging

Worried about my weird obsession with sponges? Or perhaps you are a fellow sponge enthusiast and you want something to make yourself feel a bit more “normal”? Well fear not, for we are not alone. Sir David Attenborough himself has a great passion for sponges, in all their spongy glory. Click the link below and watch to justify your interest in this blog:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p010nrzh

Photo of Sir David Attenborough
Picture of Sir David Attenborough (originated from Wikicommons, author: Mikedixson)

Lo and behold, he is in fact talking about this weeks iconic sponge -the Venus Flower Basket. You can read about this sponge in the post below. Instead of focusing on the sponge’s association with shrimps, he details their amazing ability to produce complex lattices out of siliceous spicules.

Weekly Sponge-date 1

Good Sponge Everyone! My name is SamSolo93 and I shall be studying deep sea sponges for weeks to come. Every week, I am going to give the world information about an iconic sponge or some interesting facts about sponges in general. Join me as I go a bit sponge mad and revel in the  sponge mania.

Todays iconic sponge is the Venus Flower Basket (Euplectella aspergillum).

Venus_Flower_Basket 2
Venus flower-basked (Euplectella aspergillum).

This glass sponge inhabits the deep sea and tends to provide a home for two shrimps. That’s right, these sponges actually allow a male and female shrimp to live out their lives in a sponge (if they are in to that sort of thing!). The sponge also provides the shrimps with a delicious meal of it’s own waste. After the couple reproduces, their young are released to find a Venus Flower Basket of their very own.

So what’s in it for the sponge? It’s all very well making a couple of shrimps happy, but sometimes a sponge needs something in return. Naturally, any self-respecting shrimp wants to keep their household tidy and this spring clean provided by the shrimps are what make this shrimp-shrimp-sponge relationship work!

The shrimps and the sponge is such a beautiful story that it has captured the imagination of many. The dry husk of a formal shrimp home is given as a traditional wedding gift in some Asian communities. Join us next week for another iconic sponge!