you're reading...


Could sponges replace expensive ocean tech?

The paper: Mariani, S., Baillie, C., Colosimo, G., Riesgo, A. (2019). Sponges as natural environmental DNA samplers. Current Biology. 29 (11). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2019.04.031.  


DNA is everywhere – not just housed within the cells of living organisms, but sitting on the surfaces around you, flying through the air we breathe, and floating in the water we drink. As we move through life, we constantly shed our own cells into the places around us. Scratch an itch and you leave behind bits of skin cells, microscopic pieces of yourself, each containing your DNA – your own unique blueprint for life that can be used as a personal identification tool.

Orange sponges living in their natural, ocean habitat. Image from wikimedia.org

Just like us, other organisms shed pieces of themselves and their DNA in their own environments. If scientists collect enough of this DNA floating around in the environment (termed environmental DNA, or eDNA for short), they can determine who or what has been in a specific area. This type of information is not just useful in forensic science – trying to determine who was at the scene of a crime – but is becoming increasingly useful in different types of ecological and conservation research. Recently, scientists are finding  eDNA is a powerful tool for studying rare species or when dealing with areas that are difficult to survey, like our oceans.


Collecting eDNA from the Ocean

Luckily for marine scientists, the ocean’s water acts as a vessel for floating bits of DNA shed by the marine animals they study.  Since the advent of DNA analysis has enabled scientists to examine eDNA, it has been easier to determine what species are living in hard to reach habitats, trace the movements of rare animals, and non-invasively identify specimens simply by collecting water samples from an area and identifying the bits of DNA floating within it.

Okay, so there is more to analyzing eDNA than simply grabbing a glass of ocean water and throwing it on a fancy machine. As scientists refine the eDNA techniques, they are realizing the importance of having ways to collect more water (more water means more DNA and more DNA means a more accurate picture of what is living in the water) and process that water so individual species can be detected. These improvements, however, have forced scientists to turn towards more technical and expensive sampling. In an effort to find an alternative to these complicated and expensive sampling solutions, a team of scientists turned towards a simpler, biological sampling device. In fact, they decided to utilize the most simplistic animal on Earth to act as their eDNA collector: the sponge.


From bathroom scrubber to scientific sampling tool

Yes, sponges are animals. If you use a natural luffa, you are using what used to be a living, “breathing” animal to clean your body. Sponges do not technically breathe. They do, however, filter water.  A lot of water. Some sponges can filter up to 10,000 liters of water a day (that is equivalent to over 2,600 gallons – enough to fill 33 bath tubs with water!). When sponges filter water, they collect microscopic floating animals (plankton) and bits of food they use for nutrients.

Could your bathroom sponge replace ocean tech? Image from maxpixel.net

A group of scientist headed by Stefano Mariani from the University of Salford in Manchester, UK, realized that by naturally filtering so much water, the sponges were also filtering and collecting those little floating bits of eDNA that are pervasive in the marine environment – essentially doing the exact job that scientists had been trying to create machines  to do.  Mariani and his colleagues proposed that they could circumvent the expensive, high tech filtering apparatuses simply by collecting pieces of sponges and analyzing the eDNA that had been filtered and aggregated in its tissue.

The team of scientists tested their hypothesis by analyzing sponge tissue from sponges collected in two different regions (the Antarctic and the Mediterranean). When analyzing the sponge tissue, the scientists were in fact able to identify other types of animals known to live in the area, such as several different species of fish, penguins, and seals.


So can we ditch the expensive equipment yet?

This does not mean that sponges are now officially the new standard for eDNA sampling; many more follow up studies will be required to determine just how reliable data collected from sponges can be. But for now, Mariani and his colleauges have opened the door to an exciting new possibility. In many ways, sponges could work as an ideal sampling tool for scientists.  Sponges are found in relative abundance throughout the oceans and could act as a sampling tool in locations where it is otherwise difficult to deploy sampling instruments. Furthermore, sponges can grow and reproduce quickly, so scientists would be able to collect pieces of sponge tissue without worrying about damaging ecosystems.

Most importantly, however, is the sheer simplicity of sponges. They cannot move. They cannot choose what to eat. They simply sit in one location, filtering whatever comes their way. Sponges are, by their very nature, unbiased filtration machines. Humans are undoubtedly capable of engineering elegant solutions to problems, but sometimes, simplicity is the most effective answer to the problem.



No comments yet.

Post a Comment


  • by oceanbites 3 months ago
    Happy Earth Day! Take some time today to do something for the planet and appreciate the ocean, which covers 71% of the Earth’s surface.  #EarthDay   #OceanAppreciation   #Oceanbites   #CoastalVibes   #CoastalRI 
  • by oceanbites 4 months ago
    Not all outdoor science is fieldwork. Some of the best days in the lab can be setting up experiments, especially when you get to do it outdoors. It’s an exciting mix of problem solving, precision, preparation, and teamwork. Here is
  • by oceanbites 5 months ago
    Being on a research cruise is a unique experience with the open water, 12-hour working shifts, and close quarters, but there are some familiar practices too. Here Diana is filtering seawater to gather chlorophyll for analysis, the same process on
  • by oceanbites 6 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  on  #oceanbites  we are featuring Hannah Collins  @hannahh_irene  Hannah works with marine suspension feeding bivalves and microplastics, investigating whether ingesting microplastics causes changes to the gut microbial community or gut tissues. She hopes to keep working
  • by oceanbites 6 months ago
    Leveling up - did you know that crabs have a larval phase? These are both porcelain crabs, but the one on the right is the earlier stage. It’s massive spine makes it both difficult to eat and quite conspicuous in
  • by oceanbites 7 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  on  #Oceanbites  we are featuring Cierra Braga. Cierra works ultraviolet c (UVC) to discover how this light can be used to combat biofouling, or the growth of living things, on the hulls of ships. Here, you
  • by oceanbites 7 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  at  #Oceanbites  we are featuring Elena Gadoutsis  @haysailor  These photos feature her “favorite marine research so far: From surveying tropical coral reefs, photographing dolphins and whales, and growing my own algae to expose it to different
  • by oceanbites 7 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  on Oceanbites we are featuring Eliza Oldach. According to Ellie, “I study coastal communities, and try to understand the policies and decisions and interactions and adaptations that communities use to navigate an ever-changing world. Most of
  • by oceanbites 8 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  at  #Oceanbites  we are featuring Jiwoon Park with a little photographic help from Ryan Tabata at the University of Hawaii. When asked about her research, Jiwoon wrote “Just like we need vitamins and minerals to stay
  • by oceanbites 8 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  on  #Oceanbites  we are featuring  @riley_henning  According to Riley, ”I am interested in studying small things that make a big impact in the ocean. Right now for my master's research at the University of San Diego,
  • by oceanbites 8 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  at  #Oceanbites  we are featuring Gabby Stedman. Gabby is interested in interested in understanding how many species of small-bodied animals there are in the deep-sea and where they live so we can better protect them from
  • by oceanbites 8 months ago
    This week for  #WriterWednesday  at  #Oceanbites  we are featuring Shawn Wang! Shawn is “an oceanographer that studies ocean conditions of the past. I use everything from microfossils to complex computer models to understand how climate has changed in the past
  • by oceanbites 9 months ago
    Today we are highlighting some of our awesome new authors for  #WriterWednesday  Today we have Daniel Speer! He says, “I am driven to investigate the interface of biology, chemistry, and physics, asking questions about how organisms or biological systems respond
  • by oceanbites 9 months ago
    Here at Oceanbites we love long-term datasets. So much happens in the ocean that sometimes it can be hard to tell if a trend is a part of a natural cycle or actually an anomaly, but as we gather more
  • by oceanbites 10 months ago
    Have you ever seen a lobster molt? Because lobsters have exoskeletons, every time they grow they have to climb out of their old shell, leaving them soft and vulnerable for a few days until their new shell hardens. Young, small
  • by oceanbites 10 months ago
    A lot of zooplankton are translucent, making it much easier to hide from predators. This juvenile mantis shrimp was almost impossible to spot floating in the water, but under a dissecting scope it’s features really come into view. See the
  • by oceanbites 11 months ago
    This is a clump of Dead Man’s Fingers, scientific name Codium fragile. It’s native to the Pacific Ocean and is invasive where I found it on the east coast of the US. It’s a bit velvety, and the coolest thing
  • by oceanbites 11 months ago
    You’ve probably heard of jellyfish, but have you heard of salps? These gelatinous sea creatures band together to form long chains, but they can also fall apart and will wash up onshore like tiny gemstones that squish. Have you seen
  • by oceanbites 12 months ago
    Check out what’s happening on a cool summer research cruise! On the  #neslter  summer transect cruise, we deployed a tow sled called the In Situ Icthyoplankton Imaging System. This can take pictures of gelatinous zooplankton (like jellyfish) that would be
  • by oceanbites 1 year ago
    Did you know horseshoe crabs have more than just two eyes? In these juveniles you can see another set in the middle of the shell. Check out our website to learn about some awesome horseshoe crab research.  #oceanbites   #plankton   #horseshoecrabs 
WP2Social Auto Publish Powered By : XYZScripts.com