Sponges: the earliest known extant metazoan-microbe symbiosis

Sponges…. Maybe not the most accessible and huggable creatures on Earth, yet probably one of the most influential organisms. Are sponges our oldest multi-cellular forefathers? They are certainly the oldest we know of, being around — and still thriving! — for more than 650 Million years. Sponges also host a very abundant — sometimes up to 30% of their biomass — and diverse microbiome, which makes them the earliest of extant animal-microbe symbiosis to study.

In our group we focus on the physiology of the sponge holobiont and how host and symbionts transform organic and inorganic nutrients that are unavailable to most other marine metazoans, such as dissolved organic matter (DOM) and inorganic carbon (through photo- and chemoautotrophy). By cycling these nutrients, sponges can thrive and survive in oligotrophic shallow and deep-sea environments, such as coral reefs and deep-sea sponge grounds. 

They also enable these ecosystems to sustain high diversity and productivity, acting as true ecological ‘engines’, through a pathway named the ‘sponge loop’ (de Goeij et al. 2013; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1LZX0z56zp8&t=423s).

Questions that we are currently addressing are to what extent sponges influence global biogeochemical (i.e. carbon, nitrogen) cycles, what type of symbiosis (i.e. mutualism, commensalism) sponge host and associated microbes have, and the (cellular) mechanisms of these symbiotic nutritional relations.

Scientists involved in this research:

Benjamin Mueller
Martijn Bart
Sara Campana
Meggie Hudspith
Niklas Kornder
Mischa Streekstra
Erik Würz
Jasper de Goeij (PI)

Funded by

European Research Council under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme: SponGES grant agreement n° 679849 ERC starting grant agreement n° 715513 to J.M. de Goeij
Moore Foundation ‘Symbiosis in Aquatic Systems’ grant agreement n° 9352

In cooperation with (amongst others)

Ute Hentschel (GEOMAR, Kiel, Germany)
Ana Riesgo (Natural History Museum, London, UK)
Nicole Webster (AIMS, Australia)
Sandie Degnan (University of Queensland, Queensland, Australia)
Torsten Thomas (University of South Wales, Sydney, Australia)
Laura Steindler (University of Haifa, Haifa, Israel)
Nipam Patel (Marine Biological Laboratory, University of Chicago, USA)


  1. Heterotrophy in the earliest gut: A single-cell view of heterotrophic carbon and nitrogen assimilation in sponge-microbe symbioses

    Rix L, M. Ribes, R. Coma, M.T. Jahn, J.M. de Goeij, D. van Oevelen, S. Escrig, A Meibom, and U. Hentschel (2020)  The ISME Journal, in press.

  2. Characterization of a sponge microbiome using an integrative genome-centric approach

    Engelberts J.P., S.J. Robbins, J.M. de Goeij, M. Aranda, S.C. Bell, and N.S. Webster (2020).  The ISME Journal 1-11. DOI: 10.1038/s41396-020-0591-9

  3. Single-cell visualization indicates direct role of sponge host in uptake of dissolved organic matter

    Achlatis M., M. Pernice, K. Green, J.M. de Goeij, P. Guagliardo, M.R. Kilburn, O. Hoegh-Guldberg, and S. Dove. (2019) Proc Royal Soc B 286:20192153. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2019.2153

  4. Towards the identification of ancestrally shared regenerative mechanisms across the Metazoa: A Transcriptomic case study in the Demosponge Halisarca caerulea

    Kenny N.J., J.M. de Goeij, D.M. de Bakker, C.G. Whalen, E. Berezikov, and A. Riesgo (2018) Mar genomics 37:135-147. DOI: 10.1016/j.margen.2017.11.001.

  5. Surviving in a marine desert: The sponge loop retains resources within coral reefs

    De Goeij J.M., D. van Oevelen, M.J.A. Vermeij, R. Osinga, J.J. Middelburg, A.F.P.M. de Goeij, and W. Admiraal (2013)  Science 342: 108-110. DOI: 10.1126/science.1241981