Branching Vase Sponge

Associated Smithsonian Expert: Klaus Ruetzler, Ph.D.

Dr. Klaus Ruetzler examines sponges maintained in a running-seawater system at the wet lab in Carrie Bow Cay, Belize.

Photo credit: Molly K. Ryan

Dr. Klaus Ruetzler is a research zoologist and curator of sponges in the Department of Invertebrate Zoology at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. His current research focuses on the diversity and ecology of sponges from submarine caves on the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef of Belize (Central American Caribbean). He is also working on a book describing 40 years of Smithsonian research on this coral reef ecosystem for which he founded the Smithsonian Carrie Bow Marine Field Station in 1972. He grew up in Austria and first became interested in sponges when he explored submarine caves, using self-made scuba gear, in Croatia, Adriatic Sea, where sponges make up most of the colorful fauna. He turned his early observations into a dissertation and earned a doctorate at the University of Vienna. He was hired by the Smithsonian Institution when a position for a sponge specialist became available.

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This image was obtained from the Smithsonian Institution. The image or its contents may be protected by international copyright laws.

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Haplosclerid sponge (Haliclona angulata)
Courtesy of Bernard Picton, Encyclopedia of Marine Life of Britain and Ireland, CC-BY-NC-SA


About Haplosclerid Sponges (Order Haplosclerida): Use by Humans

Because sponges contain a variety of chemicals that affect living organisms (bioactive compounds), they have become the subject of research to find drugs to treat human diseases. Haplosclerida sponges have been especially fruitful for bioactive compounds. The upwards of 30 compounds called 3-APs found in haplosclerids have properties such as keeping bacteria from growing and stopping cells from dividing. Not only might they be valuable for human medicines, but they also help the sponge stay healthy. A greasy coating of 3-AP compounds on the surface of a haplosclerid sponge is like a repellant for bacteria and other organisms that could contaminate it. The trick for our using these compounds is how to get large enough amounts without hurting wild populations of sponges. Scientists are working to synthesize (make copies of) compounds like the 3-APs rather than take them directly from sponges.

Scientific diver looking at sponges (Cliona celata)
Courtesy of yann fontana, World Register of Marine Species, CC-BY-NC-SA

About Sponges (Phylum Porifera): Use by Humans

Most bath sponges these days are artificial, but a reminder of when a sponge meant the dried up skeleton of a sea sponge. As long as 4,000 years ago, Greeks were free-diving for sponges in the Mediterranean Sea to sell for bathing. A sponge diver had a dangerous job, facing steep coastlines, sharks, and deep water. Special equipment gradually came into use, starting with a simple rake and advancing during the 1800s to a dive suit with a long tube connected to a boat air supply. The uses of sponges expanded to include cushion stuffing, agricultural fertilizer, scouring pads, and food additives. Modern sponge divers are often sponge researchers (spongologists) with scuba tanks, dive computers, or even submersibles. Research on sponges has allowed us to better understand their value to us. Because sponge cells can tell apart self from non-self, they have served as simple models for study of our immune system. Today, they are mostly used for their pharmacological properties; many sponges contain medicinal compounds.