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Sponges feast on ‘sugar’ of the sea

04
Dec 2019

Posted By

Michelle Achlatis

Did you know that one of the most abundant marine food sources is invisible, like sugar dissolved in a cup of tea?

Not many organisms can efficiently feed on dissolved organic matter (DOM), a mixture that constitutes the largest source of organic matter in the ocean.

Sponges and free-living bacteria are exceptions: they feast on DOM, and, in doing so, they make it available to others along the food chain.

But do sponges owe this ability to the symbiotic bacteria inside their bodies?

Our new study zoomed in on sponge cells to track if, and how, they take up DOM.

We found specialised sponge cells effectively ‘drink’ DOM, independent of the bacterial symbionts that they host!

Marine sponges are the oldest extant animals and are also set to become more abundant in many near-future benthic environments, where they play crucial roles in nutrient cycling.

The turnover rate of DOM by sponge communities is important ecologically, in some cases meeting rates equal to the daily gross primary production of entire reef systems.

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Achlatis M, Pernice M, Green K, de Goeij JM, Guagliardo P, Kilburn MR, Hoegh-Guldberg O, Dove S. (2019). ‘Single-cell visualization indicates direct role of sponge host in uptake of dissolved organic matter’. Proc. R. Soc. B 286: 20192153. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2019.2153

On nutrient-poor coral reefs, sponges such as this coral-excavating species (dark brown patch) benefit from feasting on organic matter dissolved in the surrounding seawater. Photo credit: Michelle Achlatis, Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef​.
On nutrient-poor coral reefs, sponges such as this coral-excavating species (dark brown patch) benefit from feasting on organic matter dissolved in the surrounding seawater. Photo credit: Michelle Achlatis, Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef​.

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Coral Reef Studies

ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies
James Cook University Townsville
Queensland 4811 Australia

Phone: 61 7 4781 4000
Email: info@coralcoe.org.au