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Line of defense: Mediterranean sea sponge emits chemical patterns, new research shows

Thierry Perez
IMBE Marseille University
Crambe crambe under the sea.

New findings suggest a sea sponge can emit chemical patterns to defend itself against predators.

Sea sponges reside motionless at the bottom of the ocean floor, but scientists have found use for their chemical compounds in medication.

The University of Delaware’s Eva Ternon is a co-author of new research that suggests a Mediterranean encrusting sponge, called “Crambe crambe” emits toxic chemical patterns from its tissues. These chemical patterns help the sponge resist predators.

"We were really interested in the ecology of these animals because they’d been mating on Earth — in the sea, from the pre-Cambrian era, before the dinosaurs, so they resisted to different biological extinction and it's really interesting to understand why they’re being so resistant," Ternon said. "We think the chemistry of those animals was really helpful to go through the ages."

Ternon said researchers found these chemical compounds could be obtained by pressing the sponge's tissue with their fingers while surrounding it with a plastic bag. They also found that the compounds released around the Mediterranean encrusting sponge C. crambe are cytotix and prevent any larval development around the sponge.


"We thought if this mechanism was happening in the seawater naturally, that should have an ecological meaning, so we tried to figure out if those toxic compounds had any toxicological effect on different larvae or embryos of other organism  that live around the sponge," Ternon said.


Researchers and pharmaceutical companies had previously killed sponges to get these compounds, but Ternon said pressing them is actually easier  It allows sponges, which recuperate quickly after the process, to stay healthy.

The team concluded that prior to their research, it was assumed the compounds were acting as an anti-bacterial substance to protect the sponge from any kind of infection; now, those compounds are assumed to be involved in a communication process. The sponge expels the cells to make a chemical shield all around itself for protection.

Ternon said the team is testing other species of sponges, but they hypothesize this mechanism might be something unique to the encrusting sponge.

Journal reference: Eva Ternon, LinaZarate, SandrineChenesseau, Julie Croue, RemiDumollard, Marcelino T. Suzuki, & Oliver P. Thomas. Spherulization as a process for the exudation of chemical cues by the encrusting sponge C. crambe. Scientific Reports 6, (2016). DOI:10.1038/srep29474