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Deep-sea Sponge Grounds Ecosystems of the North Atlantic: an integrated approach towards their preservation and sustainable exploitation

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - SponGES (Deep-sea Sponge Grounds Ecosystems of the North Atlantic: an integrated approach towards their preservation and sustainable exploitation)

Reporting period: 2017-09-01 to 2019-02-28

The North Atlantic encompasses a variety of vulnerable sponge-dominated deep-sea ecosystems that are delivering key supporting, regulating, and provisioning goods and services. However, the impacts from established and emerging human activities, as well as climate change, have over such ecosystems are largely unknown. The occurrence of these ecosystems in fjords, on continental shelves and on seamounts and mid-ocean ridges, often coincides with fishing and other human activities. Until now sponge grounds have received relatively little research and conservation attention. In view of closing this knowledge gap, the EU H2020 project SponGES was implemented. The main objective of SponGES is to develop an integrated ecosystem-based approach to preserve and sustainably use vulnerable sponge ecosystems of the North Atlantic. Employing a trans-Atlantic collaborative and multidisciplinary approach, SponGES is addressing these key challenges by: strengthening the knowledge base, improving innovation, predicting changes, and providing decision support tools for management, conservation, and sustainable exploitation of these marine habitats. North Atlantic deep-sea sponge grounds are being mapped and characterized to determine the drivers of past and present distributions, and their diversity, biogeographic and connectivity patterns investigated through a genomic approach. Ecosystem function and the goods and services they provide are being identified and quantified. The project is also unlocking the potential of sponge grounds for innovative blue biotechnology, namely towards drug discovery and tissue engineering. It is improving predictive capacities by quantifying threats related to fishing, climate change, and local disturbances. SponGES outputs will form the basis for modelling and predicting future ecosystem dynamics under environmental change, thereby enabling conservation and sustainable management of these marine resources at regional and international levels.
In the first 36 months of the SponGES project, considerable progress was made in all work packages towards the achievement of the project goals. All samples and essential data have been collected during extensive field campaigns, and the SponGIS data portal is now publicly launched. High-resolution maps and 3D reconstructions of the various sponge grounds have been produced, and environmental conditions and seasonal variability have been characterized. New predictive distribution modelling approaches, and theoretical models of food web and biogeochemical cycling of sponge grounds have been developed, and novel coupled ecosystem models are being built, with substantial methodological enhancement. The knowledge on past and present-day environmental conditions is used to infer future sponge ground distributions and dynamics. The biodiversity associated with sponge grounds has been quantified and reference collections of the main structuring sponge ground species are in preparation to be deposited in seven national museums. The largest genomic resource assembly for deep-sea sponges to date has been produced. A draft genome, various mitochondrial genomes, and genomic libraries have been generated to understand the spatial patterns of genetic diversity, connectivity and structure in the North Atlantic deep-sea. Fluxes of dissolved nutrients (C, N, Si) were characterized both in and ex situ, using newly developed incubation chambers, further allowing to investigate responses to anthropogenic stressors. Genomic and transcriptomic datasets are being screened for evolutionary novelties, metabolic peptides and microbial functional differences, which will greatly advance our understanding of the evolutionary history and adaptations to an extreme deep-sea environment. A new protocol for high-throughput sponge metabolic fingerprinting was developed and new biotechnologically-promising gene clusters were discovered. The unique micro-architectural features of deep-sea sponges are used for the development of tissue engineering scaffolds with potential human health applications. A methodology for 3D-printing was established and scaffolds were developed with an application to bone tissue engineering, and non-toxic bioceramics from 3 species was shown to stimulate the precipitation of calcium and phosphorous from simulated body fluid. Awareness towards deep-sea sponge ecosystems has been raised, and the science-policy-society-industry interface advanced. A high number of round tables and events were organized and SponGES results presented to relevant Regional Fisheries Management Organizations, EC working groups, and at numerous (inter)national stakeholder meetings. Moreover, communication and awareness raising briefs and WP information leaflets have been produced and distributed including at the FAO Committee on Fisheries and at the UN.
Prior to the SponGES project, very little was known about the past and present distribution of sponge grounds in the North Atlantic. To make better predictions of the occurrence of such habitats, more knowledge on the underlying environmental as well as geological drivers was needed. Detailed mapping and analysis within SponGES has led to production of maps of present-day and future predicted distributions, enabling us to provide decision makers with the scientific knowledge necessary to improve biodiversity conservation and to achieve efficiency and sustainability in the use of sponge grounds. The academic community will greatly benefit from the high quality genomic datasets when investigating the biology and molecular evolution of largely inaccessible organisms that possess unique adaptations to their extreme habitats. We have assembled the largest study of the reproductive ecology of deep-sea sponges to date. The combination of the genetic units, dispersal patterns, and reproductive features with the particle tracking modelling will be fundamental to obtain an accurate scenario of the connectivity of deep-sea sponges in the North Atlantic region that will significantly enhance our ability to design efficient areas of special conservation. Deep-sea sponges will serve as inspiration for the development of novel human tissue engineering scaffolds, and gene sequences will be mined for the development of novel pharmaceutical and industrial chemicals. The development of a deep-water sponge cell line provides the basis for in vitro production of chemicals and other bioproducts that will be invaluable to other researchers and possibly the industry. SponGES has begun to upscale individual physiological rates to population and community levels, finally establishing the global role of North-Atlantic sponge grounds in the benthic-pelagic coupling of inorganic nutrients, carbon and oxygen at the deep-sea ecosystem level. This will involve the first, highly-empirical understanding of the functional ecology of sponge-dominated deep-sea ecosystems, including conservation and exploitation plans. This information is being used to construct large-scale coupled ecosystem-climate models that include new carbonate and silicate chemistry algorithms, organic matter deposition and atmospheric forcing. These models are being used to assess impacts of anthropogenic stressor such as fishing and deep sea mining.
Deploying NIOZ BOBO lander during a cruise in Nova Scotia. ©JoanaXavier/CIIMAR/SponGES
Sample processing on the deck of R/V Angeles Alvariño ©Cristobo/IEO/SponGES
Gearing the ROV ROPOS with incubation chambers. ©JoanaXavier/CIIMAR/SponGES
Glass sponge Asconema sp on a sponge-dominated deep-water coral reef off Norway. ©HansToreRapp/UiB
Pheronema ground surveyed with the submersible LULA. ©Rebikoff Foundation