Medicinal Magician

Meet Ohrid Sponge (Ochridaspongia rotunda), the mysterious orb of ancient knowledge thirty to fifty meters deep in Lake Ohrid’s crystal waters.  Unfold it and deep secrets may be revealed to you.

This interview will be difficult. You don’t even have a mouth.

It’s not as big a deal as you think. Sponges haven’t needed mouths for 600,000,000 years [1], ever since we became one of the first animals to split off the tree of life. We’re doing just fine without.

Then how do you…

…eat? We filter water through an internal system of one-way canals and pick out the tasty bits. It’s a bit like a buffet, only unique in the animal world.

I’m still concerned about how to ask questions.

Don’t be. Humans and sponges are a great team. People have been approaching sponges for knowledge since at least since Alexandrian times [2].

Like what?

Medicine mostly, although recently scientists have been looking to sponges for biotechnological solutions. We sponges have even been described as a goldmine for chemists and pharmacologists [3]. But that’s just the start of it. We know a lot of other things besides.

Sponges know medicine!?

Some sponge taxa offer antiviral, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and other extracts [4] that can be used to treat human ailments. If you call that “knowing medicine” then, yes, we do.

But not you personally, right?

Me? At Lake Ohrid? Well, scientists recently worked with some of my Ochridaspongia rotunda colleagues and discovered that we have antimicrobial and antifungal capabilities so impressive that we can outperform positive controls [5]. We’re also working on something that may help you humans with Alzheimer’s disease, but that needs more research before we can say anything concrete [6].

Respect. What other secrets do sponges “know”?

Evolution. Like I mentioned earlier, sponges are a candidate for the first animal to branch from the tree of life. Figuring out whether we were or not will answer important questions about the development of the nervous system [7]. We’re also doing some stuff with materials science, which is based on the microstructures of our skeletons.

Materials Science? Microstructures?

Yeah, the design and creation of new materials. If we’re talking about sponges in general, our skeletal structures are durable and flexible. Some even have optical abilities and we can pull 25 to 34 m2 of surface area from a 3 to 4 gram skeleton [3]. Those are pretty useful properties if you’re the kind of R&D team who’s willing to listen to a creature without a mouth.

You’re still touchy about that. Anything else we should know?

Sponges can sneeze. So watch out.

Bibliography and References

  1. Yin, Z., Zhu, M., Davidson, E. H., Bottjer, D. J., Zhao, F., and Tafforeau, P. (2015) Sponge grade body fossil with cellular resolution dating 60 Myr before the Cambrian. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 112 (12) E1453-E1460.
  2. Sipkema, D., Franssen, M. C. R., Osinga, R., Tramper, J., Wijffels, R. H. (2005) Marine sponges as pharmacy, Marine Biotechnology, Volume 7, 142–162.
  3. Ehrlich, H. and Worch H. (2007) Sponges as natural composites: from biomimetic potential to development of new biomaterials. Porifera Research: Biodiversity, Innovation and Sustainability.
  4. Schröder H.C. and Müller W.E.G. (2002) Molecular approaches to study stress adaptation, bioactivity and phylogenetic relationships within the porifera. Proceedings of the Third International Conference on Bioinformatics of Genome Regulation and Structure (BGRS), Novosibirsk, Russia July 14 – 20 2002.
  5. Pejin, B., Talevski, A., Ciric, A., Glamoclija, J., Nikolic, M., Talevski, T., and Sokovic, M. (2014) In vitro evaluation of antimicrobial activity of the freshwater sponge Ochridaspongia rotunda (Arndt, 1937).  Natural Product Research Vol. 28, Issue 18.
  6. Talevska, A., Pejin, B., Beric, T., Stankovic, S. (2017) Further insight into the bioactivity of the freshwater sponge Ochridaspongia rotundaPharmaceutical Biology, 55:1, 1313-1316.
  7. Were the First Animals Sponge-like? Complexity in the animal tree of life by T. J. Cunha, Science in the News, The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University.

About the Picture..

The main photo is cut and adapted from an earlier image by Rašo named Macedonian Museum of Natural History in Skopje, Macedonia under Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0 Unported, the same license under which people are welcome to copy it. We thank Rašo for making information about Ohrid nature available to all.


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