Porifera (Sponges): Recent Knowledge and New Perspectives


Porifera, commonly named sponges, are true animals or metazoan despite their anatomical and morphological simplicity that had led to a long‐time debate about their nature (animal versus vegetal) and constitution (colonies of unicellular organisms versus multicellular organisms). Sponges are a successful group of mostly marine filter feeder organisms that represent a major life form of several ecosystems. Devoid of organs, the main characteristics of their body plan are the presence of a network of pores (at the origin of their name), choanocyte chambers and canals devoted to water filtration and spicules (when present) allowing tissue physical support. Currently considered as the sister group to all the other animals, these organisms have a key phylogenetic position. Recent studies have shown that they possess an unexpected molecular complexity raising exciting questions about early animal evolution.

Key Concepts:

  • As adults, sponges are sedentary filter feeder animals.

  • The water flow is canalised in an aquiferous system composed of pores (ostia), canals and choanocyte chambers.

  • At present, the number of formally described sponge species is comprised between 8000 and 9000.

  • Sponges are divided into four clades […] Hexactinellida, Demospongiae, Calcarea and Homoscleromorpha.

  • As sponges are devoid of organs, their individual cells or cell layers ensure vital functions.

  • One cell type may have several functions.

  • In addition to cell plurifunctionality, the functional plasticity of sponges also relies on a high capacity of cell transdifferentiation.

  • Sponges often use both asexual and sexual reproduction.

  • Most of key transcription families and main signalling pathways required for eumetazoan development and body patterning are present in sponges.

  • The recent rising interest for Porifera is expected to lead to a better understanding of animal evolution.

Keywords: Porifera; sponges; Metazoa; animal; evolution; multicellularity; stem cells; complexity

Figure 1.

Two main hypotheses currently proposed concerning nonbilaterian phylogenetic relationships: (a) paraphyly of sponges, (b) monophyly of sponges. Modified from Ereskovsky et al.. © Springer.

Figure 2.

(a) General organisation of sponges. (b) The three main levels of complexity of the aquiferous system. Modified with permission from Philippe et al.. © Elsevier.

Figure 3.

Pictures illustrating the diversity of forms, colours and sizes in Porifera, with a few chosen examples from the four clades. (a) Aplysina cavernicola, (b) Ephydatia fluviatilis, (c) Xestospongia muta, (d) Sycon ciliatum, (e) Clathrina contorta, (f) Leucosolenia complicata, (g) Rosella nuda, (h) Oopsacas minuta and (i) Oscarella species (*Oscarella tuberculata and **Oscarella lobularis). © Elsevier.

Figure 4.

Possible scenarios of character evolution during animal history, according to the (currently most accepted) hypothesis of monophyly of sponges. Lines represent acquisition of characters, crosses represent losses of characters, red or green colours represent alternative scenarios for a same character. Characters are coded by the following numbers: 1: multicellularity; 2: aquiferous system; 3: basement membrane and true epithelia; 4: siliceous spicules; 5: neurones, muscle cells and digestive system. © Elsevier.



Bergquist PR (1978) Sponges, 268 p. London: Hutchinson & Co.

Boury‐Esnault N , Lavrov DV , Ruiz CA and Pérez T (2013) The integrative taxonomic approach applied to porifera: A case study of the Homoscleromorpha. Integrative and Comparative Biology 24. 10.1093/icb/ict042.

Boute N , Exposito JY , Boury‐Esnault N et al. (1996) Type IV collagen in sponges, the missing link in basement membrane ubiquity. Biology of the Cell 88: 37–44.

Brusca RC and Brusca GJ (2003) Invertebrates, 2nd edn. Sunderland, MA: Sinaeur.

Carballo JL , Bautista E , Nava H , Cruz‐Barraza JA and Chavez JA (2012) Boring sponges, an increasing threat for coral reefs affected by bleaching events. Ecology and Evolution. 10.1002/ece3.452

Darah I , Lim CL , Nurul‐Aili Z , Nor‐Afifah S and Shaida‐Fariza S (2011) Effects of methanolic extract of a soft sponge, Haliclona sp. on bacterial cells: structural degeneration study. International Journal of Comprehensive Pharmacy 2: 1–6.

Dunn CW , Hejnol A , Matus DQ et al. (2008) Broad phylogenomic sampling improves resolution of the animal tree of life. Nature 452: 745–749.

Ereskovsky AV (2010) The comparative embryology of sponges. Dordrecht: Springer.

Ereskovsky AV , Borchiellini C , Gazave E et al. (2009). The Homoscleromorph sponge Oscarella lobularis, a promising sponge model in evolutionary and developmental biology. Bioessays 31: 89–97.

Ereskovsky AV , Renard E and Borchiellini C (2013) Cellular and molecular processes leading to embryo formation in sponges: evidences for high conservation of processes throughout animal evolution. Developmental Genes and Evolution 223(1–2): 5–22.

Erwin DH , Laflamme M , Tweedt SM et al. (2011) The Cambrian conundrum: early divergence and later ecological success in the early history of animals. Science 334: 1091–1097.

Funayama N (2013) The stem cell system in demosponges: suggested involvement of two types of cells: archeocytes (active stem cells) and choanocytes (food‐entrapping flagellated cells). Developmental Genes and Evolution 223(1–2): 23–38.

Gazave E , Lapébie P , Renard E et al. (2008) NK homeobox genes with choanocyte‐specific expression in homoscleromorph sponges. Developmental Genes and Evolution 218: 479–489.

Gazave E , Lapebie P , Ereskovsky AV et al. (2012) No longer Demospongiae: Homoscleromorpha formal nomination as a fourth class of Porifera. Hydrobiologia 687(1): 3–10.

Gazave E , Lavrov DV , Cabrol J et al. (2013) Systematics and molecular phylogeny of the family oscarellidae (homoscleromorpha) with description of two new Oscarella species. PLoS One 8(5): e63976.

Jacobs DK , Nakanishi N , Yuan D et al. (2007) Evolution of sensory structures in basal metazoa. Integrative and Comparative Biology 47: 712–723.

Leys SP , Mackie GO and Reiswig HM (2007) The biology of glass sponges. Advances in Marine Biology 52: 1–145.

Leys SP , Yahel G , Reidenbach MA et al. (2011) The sponge pump: The role of current induced flow in the design of the sponge body plan. PLoS One 6: e27787. 10.1371/journal.pone.0027787

Nickel M , Scheer C , Hammel JU , Herzen J and Beckmann F (2011) The contractile sponge epithelium sensu lato‐body contraction of the demosponge Tethya wilhelma is mediated by the pinacoderm. Journal of Experimental Biology 15; 214(10): 1692–1698.

Nielsen C (2008) Six major steps in animal evolution: are we derived sponge larvae. Evolution and Development 10: 241–257.

Nosenko T , Schreiber F , Adamska M et al. (2013) Deep metazoan phylogeny: when different genes tell different stories. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 67(1): 223–233.

Philippe H , Derelle R , Lopez P et al. (2009) Phylogenomics revives traditional views on deep animal relationships. Current Biology 19: 706–712.

Philippe H , Brinkmann H , Lavrov DV et al. (2011) Resolving difficult phylogenetic questions: why more sequences are not enough. PLoS Biology 9(3): e1000602. 10.1371/journal.pbio.1000602.

Pick KS , Philippe H , Schreiber F et al. (2010). Improved phylogenomic taxon sampling noticeably affects nonbilaterian relationships. Molecular Biology and Evolution 27: 1983–1987.

Pronzato R and Manconi R (2008) Mediterranean commercial sponges: over 5000 years of natural history and cultural heritage. Marine Ecology 29: 146–166.

Reiswig HM (1971) In situ pumping activities of tropical Demospongiae.Marine Biology 9: 38–50.

Renard E , Vacelet J , Gazave E et al. (2009) Origin of the neuro‐sensory system: new and expected insights from sponges. Integrative Zoology 4: 294–308.

Rigby JK and Hou XG (1995) Lower Cambrian demosponges and hexactinellid sponges from Yunnan. Chinese Journal of Paleontology 69: 1009–1019.

Schierwater B , Eitel M , Jakob W et al. (2009) Concatenated analysis sheds light on early metazoan evolution and fuels a modern “urmetazoan” hypothesis. PLoS Biology 7(1): e1000020.

Schill RO , Pfannkuchen M , Fritz G , Köhler HR and Brümmer F (2006) Quiescent Gemmules of the Freshwater Sponge, Spongilla lacustris (Linnaeus, 1759), Contain Remarkably High Levels of Hsp70 Stress Protein and Hsp70 Stress Gene mRNA. Journal of Experimental Zoology part A: Comparative Experimental Biology 305A, 5. 10.1002/jez.a.281

Simpson TL (1984) The Cell Biology of Sponges. New York: Springer Verlag.

Sperling EA , Peterson KJ and Pisani D (2009) Phylogenetic‐signal dissection of nuclear housekeeping genes supports the paraphyly of sponges and the monophyly of Eumetazoa. Molecular Biology and Evolution 26: 2261–2274.

Torres YR , Berlinck RGS , Nascimento GGF et al. (2002) Antibacterial activity against resistant bacteria and cytotoxicity of four alkaloid toxins isolated from marine sponge Arenosclera brasiliensis . Toxicon 40: 885–891.

Vacelet J and Boury‐Esnault N (1995) Carnivorous sponges. Nature (London) 373: 333–335.

Vacelet J and Duport (2004) Prey capture and digestion in the carnivorous sponge Asbestopluma hypogea (Porifera: Demospongiae). Zoomorphology 123: 179–190.

Touati I , Chaieb K , Bakhrouf A and Gaddour K (2007) Screening of antimicrobial activity of marine sponge extracts collected from Tunisian coast. Journal of Medical Mycology 17: 183–187.

Webster NS and Taylor MW (2012) Marine sponges and their microbial symbionts: love and other relationships. Environmental Microbiology 14(2): 335–346. 10.1111/j.1462‐2920.2011.02460.x

Wörheide G , Dohrmann M , Erpenbeck D et al. (2012) Deep phylogeny and evolution of sponges (phylum Porifera). Advances in Marine Biology 61: 1–78.

Further Reading

Funayama N (2010) The stem cell system in demosponges: Insights into the origin of somatic stem cells. Development, Growth & Differentiation 52(1): 1–14.

Leys SP (2004) Gastrulation in Sponges. In: Stern CD (ed.) Gastrulation: From cell to embryo, pp 23–32. New York: Cold Spring Harbor Lab Press.

Manuel M (2009) Early evolution of symmetry and polarity in metazoan body plans. Comptes Rendus Biologies 332(2–3): 184–209.

Contact Editor close
Submit a note to the editor about this article by filling in the form below.

* Required Field

How to Cite close
Renard, Emmanuelle, Gazave, Eve, Fierro‐Constain, Laura, Schenkelaars, Quentin, Ereskovsky, Alexander, Vacelet, Jean, and Borchiellini, Carole(Dec 2013) Porifera (Sponges): Recent Knowledge and New Perspectives. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0001582.pub2]