Friday, December 3, 2010

Sponges, Cancer and the Dawn of Time

Christina Mackey sent in a great article on how research on living sponges illuminates the start of multi-cellular life (that would ultimately lead to creatures like us). There are some important bits of information here.

One of the big issues of multi-cellular life is getting all of the cells to play nice together so they can go multi-cellular. When a cell goes bad - do the other cells take it out? Or does it self-destruct? Do you see the "cancer" issue here? One of things that came up from the study was the implication that cells were able to self-destruct when they went wrong before they were taken out by their neighbors.

Of course, some news articles simply glossed over the information and declared, "Humans descended from sponges!" And this seemed to outrage some. I noted several online articles where the scientists were ridiculed for supposedly suggesting that we descended from Sponge Bob (who actually represents a fairly nice character overall - the world might be a better place if we were indeed directly related).

But giving human characteristics to a very non-human creature is always tricky, as is looking for a direct ancestral line. Regardless, I personally would be proud to be related to an organism like the sponge. They are hard to kill (you can cut one into pieces and it just keeps going - sponges have no brain, liver, lungs, etc. - they are just an exquisitely organized group of cells that work very well together). And sponges filter 4 times their own volume every minute of the day. So 1 cubic foot of living sea sponge filters over 2880 gallons of water every 12 hours. That is some reef cleaning! The fact that studying sponges can also teach us about the start of multicellular life, and cancer, is icing on the cake. What a cool group of animals!

Christina's article (technical but good), see:

Or check a nice summary for the popular press on Nature News:

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