Sponges bounce back after a breakdown

Break a sponge into its individual cells and over time they can creep back into position, forming a new complete sponge. This ‘rise from the dead’ along with a potential cure for herpes shows these seemingly dull, sea floor dwellers are unjustly overlooked.

Structurally, sponges are very simple animals, though you’d be forgiven for not realising they were animals at all. They seem to act like your regular garden plants, with no locomotion and no animal like face or limbs – but what is also lacking is an ability to produce its own food. While a tree can photosynthesise, the sponge is filled with pores which filter the surrounding water for the nutrients it then directly absorbs.

They have no organs or true tissues so no respiratory, digestive or excretory systems. Instead everything happens at the cellular level with each cell absorbing what it needs via diffusion. This characteristic is what makes a sponge a colonial animal; it’s made of identical cells which stay together but with little or no interaction between them. Not only is it remarkable that they can function so well with so little body parts but this colonial nature means sponges can do some pretty odd things.

Should a sponge be passed through a very fine sieve so that it’s broken down into its individual cells, it does not die! Over time this pile would begin to move, with each cell wandering back into its appropriate position till a new complete sponge had formed. Should you divide the original pile of cells into smaller groups, you would get a whole bunch of new sponges from the fragments. You could even mix the individual cells of two different sponges and a single new sponge with mixed parentage would form!

Could you imagine a similar treatment given to a human? A greatly grotesque outcome. Yet for sponges, their colonial characteristic means they function on a cellular level and so long as no damage is sustained to the cells themselves, they have the incredible ability to regenerate.

Think sponges can’t get odder? Studies have also shown that members of the sponge family exhibit strong anti-Herpes Simplex Virus activity. They could be the answer to finding a cure to genital herpes! So give our sponges a second thought, they’re stranger than they seem.

Break sponges down into individual cells, and they ‘bounce back’ regrouping as a sponge once again! Photo: Flickr/Klaus Stiefel


Hickman, C., Roberts, L., Keen, S., Eisenhour, D., Larson, A. & l’Anson, H. (2011). Integrated Principles of Zoology. Fifteenth Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Zhong, M.,Xiang, Y.,Oiu, X., Liu, Z., Zitazato, K. & Wang, Y. (2012). Natural products as a source of anti-herpes simplex virus agents. The Royal Society of Chemistry, 2(3), 313-328. Retrieved from http://pubs.rsc.org/en/Content/ArticleLanding/2013/RA/c2ra21464d#!divAbstract


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