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.



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Further Reading

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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]