How to ID a sea sponge

Sponges, the oldest multicellular animals in the world, play an important role in marine ecosystems and their potent bioactive compounds have potential in future drug discoveries.

With more than 8,700 known species worldwide, sea sponges (phylum Porifera) are difficult to identify but a new identification protocol developed by Flinders University researchers provides greater accuracy and opens up more opportunity to study species in South Australia.

The new protocol, just published online in the Nature research journal Scientific Reports, uses the sequence information of three different molecular methods focusing on three different genes, along with traditional morphological methods, to give greater accuracy in identifying new or ambiguous marine sponges.

Molecular taxonomy of species is a growing field that speeds up identification, adds to the evolutionary history of species and provides data for ecological studies including detecting invasive species – along with biomedical research.

DNA barcoding of sponge phylogenetic classification has its limitations, says Flinders Centre for Marine Bio-Products Development researcher Qi Yang.

“We have addressed the gap in identifying species by developing an integrated multilocus-based Sponge Identification Protocol validated by 10 orders from South Australia,” Ms Yang says.

“We believe it will benefit the discovery of the sponge diversity in more marine and freshwater ecosystems,” she says, adding sponges have been found to produce up to 30% of all active marine metabolites which provide commercial opportunities for the pharmaceutical and biomaterial industires.

They also carry out complex biotic interactions with diverse marine life forms and ocean environments, making their identification and protection important in future conservation efforts.

‘Development of a multilocus-based approach for sponge (phylum Porifera) identification: refinement and limitations’ by Yang Q, Franco CMM, Sorokin SJ and Zhang W is published online here.

The research was supported by scholarships from Flinders University and the Flinders Centre for Marine Bioproducts Development and the China Scholarship Council.


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