Australian sponge survey driving medical research

February 21, 2014 by Chris Thomas
Proliferation of newly discovered Australian sponge species drives medical research
In sponges, metabolites (chemical compounds) are produced to help the sponge meet the many challenges of life in the sea. Image: Christine Schonberg

Sponge gardens along WA's coast are proving to be a haven of new species—and many are playing an important role in new drug discoveries.

Dr Christine Schönberg from the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS), based at the University of WA's Oceans Institute, says about one-third of in every collection from WA represent new species with many appearing to be endemic.

A survey at Ningaloo Reef has shown local sponge gardens become prevalent in depths where corals recede.

Sponge biomass and diversity was extremely high, leading to the recognition of Ningaloo as a sponge diversity hotspot, which is a place with more than 250 different species.

"The total number of sponge species at Ningaloo was calculated to reach between 500 and 800, which is a lot when considering that we presently know about 8500 species of sponges in the entire world," Dr Schönberg says.

"We do not yet understand why there are so many sponges around Australia and research is ongoing to generate better knowledge on their requirements and possible threats to them.

"While many coral reefs are marine-protected areas, sponge gardens as a rule are not.

"In WA, sponge gardens have been significantly decimated by heavy fishing gear which, in turn, affected the catch rates of fish that need sponge gardens."

Many sponges collected across the State have been accessioned into the Western Australian Marine Bioresources Library (WAMBL) at the WA Museum.

WAMBL makes the samples available for researchers who want to conduct , according to AIMS project leader Dr Libby Evans-Illidge.

"Sponges have been demonstrated to be a rich source of novel metabolites with applications in human therapeutics, probably because sponges share so much metabolic machinery with humans," she says.

"Recent genome sequencing has shown all the essential animal traits that are so advanced in humans were already present 650 mya in sponges."

In , metabolites (chemical compounds) are produced to help the sponge meet the many challenges of life in the sea.

"Sponges rely on chemicals to ward off predators, protect reproductive products, avoid being overgrown by neighbours, fight disease or recover from illness or injury," Dr Evans-Illidge says.

"One of the great things about sponge compounds is they are often highly potent which means they work at very low concentrations—and high potency is a desirable trait in a drug."

But Dr Schönberg warns that with many WA species being endemic, a patch of habitat may not only be lost when damage occurs to local sponge gardens but entire species may also become extinct.

Explore further: Researchers document new species of carnivorous sponge (w/ Video)

Related Stories

Largest study of sponges sheds new light on animal evolution

February 4, 2014

Sponges are an important animal for marine and freshwater ecology and represent a rich animal diversity found throughout the world, from tropical climates to the arctic poles. For evolutionary biologists, they also present ...

Recommended for you

Genomes uncover life's early history

August 24, 2015

A University of Manchester scientist is part of a team which has carried out one of the biggest ever analyses of genomes on life of all forms.

Rare nautilus sighted for the first time in three decades

August 25, 2015

In early August, biologist Peter Ward returned from the South Pacific with news that he encountered an old friend, one he hadn't seen in over three decades. The University of Washington professor had seen what he considers ...

Study shows female frogs susceptible to 'decoy effect'

August 28, 2015

(Phys.org)—A pair of researchers has found that female túngaras, frogs that live in parts of Mexico and Central and South America, appear to be susceptible to the "decoy effect." In their paper published in the journal ...

Why a mutant rice called Big Grain1 yields such big grains

August 24, 2015

(Phys.org)—Rice is one of the most important staple crops grown by humans—very possibly the most important in history. With 4.3 billion inhabitants, Asia is home to 60 percent of the world's population, so it's unsurprising ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.