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September 10, 2005

Does the sponge hold the secret of life?


Jon Nordheimer wrote a story that appeared in the August 16 New York Times Science section that I thought was extremely interesting.

So why has it taken me nearly a month to get it up here?

Because I wasn't sure I understood the material well enough to put it on bookofjoe, that's why.

If something is unclear to me, in terms of its meaning or how to describe it properly, I won't post it.

Anyway, after rereading the piece a number of times over the past few weeks, I think I understand what the article is about well enough to bring it to you.

Long story short: the primitive — or at least, up to now considered primitive — sponge, seen as a crossover between plant and animal life, turns out to have some rather sophisticated features.

Among them:

• "Sponges have a sophisticated gene that in other animals controls the growth of eyes, brains and the central nervous system."

• "Alone among animals, they may possess archetypes of stem cells."

• "At any stage in the life of a sponge, these cells can transform themselves into any of the other five types of specialized cells that constitute a sponge."

• The specialized cells may be able to revert to stem cell archetypes when they are needed to perform another function.

Most astonishing to me: the sponge is capable of letting its body parts dissolve into individual cells which can float around in the water — but they are not dead.

The cells can find each other and reassemble into a sponge.

Remember that Terminator who could reassemble itself from blobs of molten metal?

Well, guess what: that was art imitating life.

With that introduction, here's the Times article.

    Scientists Find a Touch of Sophistication in the Genes of a Simple Sponge

    SpongeBob may be more complicated than he looks.

    A husband and wife research team at the University of Richmond has discovered that marine sponges, long considered some of the most primitive creatures on the planet, carry a sophisticated gene that in other animals controls the growth of eyes, brains and the central nervous system.

    Sponges lack nerve cells, however, so they can't produce the complex sensory organs of higher animals.

    The finding was not entirely unexpected, said April and Malcolm Hill, the research biologists who isolated the gene in the larvae of common marine sponges.

    There have been other genes isolated from sponges in recent years that might have pointed in this direction, said Dr. April Hill. "What makes our finding so unique is that sponges lack any type of organs associated with the central nervous system," she said.

    More than 8,000 species of sponges, which make up the phylum Porifera, have been scientifically observed as living creatures or fossils.

    Seen as a crossover between plant and animal life, sponges have come under greater scrutiny because they play important ecological roles in marine systems, acting as pumps and filters.

    They also play host to diverse numbers of bacteria, including some with cancer-fighting properties.

    Sponges evolved some 500 million to 1 billion years ago and - alone among animals - may possess archetypes of stem cells, the cells within a fertilized egg in humans that have the potential to develop into different kinds of cells, Dr. Hill said.

    The sponge cells of similar nature are called archeocytes, she said.

    At any stage in the life of a sponge, these cells can transform themselves into any of the other five types of specialized cells that constitute a sponge.

    She explained that some of the other cell types, in turn, may be able to revert to archeocytes when they are needed to perform yet another function.

    "The fascinating thing is how sponges are capable of letting body parts dissolve into individual cells," Dr. Hill added.

    The scattered cells can float around but not die, she said, and then find each other and reassemble into a sponge.

    In laboratory gene-sequencing experiments, the Hills studied the DNA of free-swimming sponge larvae in the first days of life before they attached themselves to a bottom structure.

    "We discovered that the sponge genome has a gene highly related to a family of genes found in higher animals that is involved in the formation of nerve and brain cells," Dr. Hill said.

    It appears, she said, that some ancient pathways used in sponge development have been modified and co-opted for other functions in more complex animals.

    Analyzing and clarifying these pathways in sponges, she continued, may eventually give researchers greater insight into the "toolbox" involved in forming and patterning the genetic blueprints that control the development of higher animals.

    The Hills, who first published their findings in the biomedical journal Development Genes and Evolution, said that last month they succeeded in isolating another sponge gene key to eye development.

    They are now at work with collaborators at the University of Zurich on a project to clone and characterize genes in the sponge genome associated with many developmental and disease processes, including the universal "master gene" that controls eye development in all animals.

    As part of this project, they are trying to use their newly discovered sponge genes to introduce sight to blind mutant fruit flies.

    Moreover, they are searching for evidence of other genes in sponges that function in more complicated ways in higher animals.

    Mitchell L. Sogin, director of the center for comparative molecular biology and evolution at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts, said the molecular machinery required to evolve a primitive nervous system "did not come out of the ozone" but must have evolved from even simpler forms of animal life.

September 10, 2005 at 12:01 PM | Permalink


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This is so corney! Who would spend all of their freaking time on SPONGES?!!!!!? I mean come on people!!!!!!!! Lets lightin up! What about, uhm US! Black eyed peas!!! woo ho!!!! OVER HERE!!!!!

Posted by: Fergie | Mar 25, 2006 10:07:37 PM

Interesting...most other writings emphasize morphology over genetics.

Posted by: ScienceChic | Sep 10, 2005 4:42:39 PM

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