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Deep implications of micro-science

Date Released: Tue, 30 August 2011 15:00 +0200

Last week, the second annual Peter Rose Lecture took place in honour of Rhodes Professor Emeritus, Dr Peter Rose, who is widely acknowledged for putting biotechnology on the map in South Africa.

Biotechnology is one of the most far-reaching and rapidly advancing scientific fields. From mapping the human genome and creating life saving drugs to brewing beer, it’s responsible for some of the most important discoveries and developments. It’s a field that seems to draw material and inspiration from absolutely everywhere, letting no stone - or sponge - escape its meticulous eye. 

Marine microbiologist, Dr Russel Hill of the University of Maryland Centre for Environmental Science, presented the lecture entitled, “Marine Sponges and their Bacteria: An intimate relationship.” Dr Hill spoke passionately about the interesting and potentially useful biology of sponges: “They are ancient organisms and we can learn a huge amount of biology by studying [them].”

Offering a rare micro-glimpse into their anatomy, Dr Hill explained what makes sponges such novel and relevant animals. They occur in over 5000 different varieties, existing in both salt and fresh water and they can filter up to 1000 liters of water every day, said Dr Hill. Sponges also have a symbiotic (or mutualistic) relationship with bacteria, making them highly efficient and adaptive organisms.

“The human body has ten times more bacteria cells than human cells,” said Dr Hill, linking human biology to that of a sponge. He explained that humans require a healthy community of bacteria for their systems to function properly, citing problems such as obesity as a result of an unhealthy relationship. Bacterial relationships are an important part of human functioning and most organisms. “By understanding symbiosis and understanding the good guys that keep you healthy, we can understand a lot about microbiology,” said Dr Hill.

Perhaps the way the micro world of sponges is most applicable to humans is through their contribution to biotechnology. “Sponges are very good places to find new drugs,” said Dr Hill, pointing out that thirty percent of pharmaceuticals are either developed directly from or inspired by nature. The recent breast cancer fighting drug, Eribulin, and Manzamine A, an anti-malarial compound, were both created from compounds found naturally occurring in sponges.

Examining the processes that take place in sponges can also help on the medical front. Dr Hill explained that bacteria in sponges undergo a uniquely coordinated process called quorum sensing, which is when a bacteria “makes chemicals that diffuse into other cells and then builds up a critical concentration and creates a new gene.”

Though sponges are relatively uncomplex animals without a brain or a nervous system, they can occur in seemingly infinitely complex varieties. The glass sponge has a skeleton made out of silica that has unique properties as an optic lens “much better at transferring light than any man-made fibre”, said Dr Hill. 

Microbiology opens up our world in new and fascinating ways, exposing what is already there but is invisible to the naked eye. Scientists like Dr Hill are collaborating with nature, using biomimicry (looking at nature’s processes and models to solve human problems) and examining biormediation (when microorganisms use their metabolism to remove pollutants) to change the way we exist in the world - or rather discover how to better live in it.

Story by Hailey Gaunt

Picture by Sophie Smith

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