Skip to main content
European Commission logo print header

Sustainable production, Physiology, Oceanography, Natural products, Genetics and Economics of Sponges

Final Report Summary - SPONGES (Sustainable production, Physiology, Oceanography, Natural products, Genetics and Economics of Sponges)

Since many years, marine sponges have been regarded as an important source of new potential products for society, in particular because sponges are known to produce a wide variety of secondary metabolites with an equally wide range of potential applications (e.g. in healthcare, fine chemistry, cosmetics and nutrition). Despite this high potential, not so many sponge-derived products are currently used on a commercial scale, which is partially due to a lack of good, reliable methods to produce sponge biomass.

In the EU-funded SPONGES project, a consortium of eight RTD performers, four SMEs and one end-user collaborated to upgrade sponge biotechnology from a promising field of applied science to an established SME-driven industry. The project was successful in its main objective: several new sponge-derived products will be introduced on the market in the year 2008, based on technology developed within the SPONGES project.

The work executed within the SPONGES project was clustered around the six main themes reflected in the project title:
1. Sustainable production (culture methods)
2. Physiology (nutrition, metabolism and element cycles within sponges)
3. Oceanography (sponge performance in relation to environmental parameters)
4. Natural products (optimisation of productivity and product recovery)
5. Genetics (the molecular background of growth and secondary metabolism)
6. Economics (business development and market perspectives) of sponges.

The most important R&D objective of the SPONGES project was to establish validated, controllable techniques to produce sponge biomass on a commercial scale in a sustainable way (i.e. without exerting high pressure on natural populations). Sponge culture was studied on four levels of increasing technological complexity and concurrently increasing levels of controllability.

Field studies were executed in the natural environment of the targeted sponge species, in order to:
- assess the performance of sponges (feeding behaviour, reproductive behaviour, growth, secondary metabolism) under natural conditions
- characterise those natural conditions, with emphasis on the availability of food and the hydrodynamic conditions.
The data obtained were used to improve culture methods for the target species.

Genetic studies were conducted to unravel the molecular mechanisms that underlay sponge performance (growth and secondary metabolism). The primmorph system was used as a tool to execute these studies.

The technology for a feasible production process for two sponge products was established. A series of products based on these two sponge components is ready to be marketed. The market introduction of a new avarol-containing skin-care product is planned as well. Based on extensive market research, sales of this product are expected to increase up to several millions in the forthcoming years.

The SPONGES project succeeded in its main overall objective to initiate an SME-driven sponge biotechnology industry in Europe. The SPONGES team has also been very productive in the scientific field. Several new, fundamental insights in sponge biology were obtained. More than twenty scientific papers that are (partially) based upon project results have been published or are in the publication-pipeline. The information obtained was used to improve existing designs for land-based sponge culture systems, which are currently suitable for long-term maintenance of a wide range of sponges. However, the establishment of reproducible methods to produce sponge biomass in land-based systems remains a challenge for the near future.