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

Reporting period: 2019-03-01 to 2020-12-31

Sponge-dominated deep-sea ecosystems in The North Atlantic deliver important ecosystem goods and services. How human activities, such as deep-sea fisheries and seabed mining as well as climate change, impact these ecosystems is still largely unknown.
The EU H2020 project SponGES was implemented to develop an integrated ecosystem-based approach to preserve and sustainably use vulnerable sponge ecosystems of the North Atlantic. The multidisciplinary consortium, with scientists from 24 institutions across the European Union, USA, and Canada, focussed on:
- strengthening the knowledge on North Atlantic sponge ecosystems, their distribution, diversity, biogeography, function and dynamics
- improving innovation for biotechnological applications, drug discovery and biomaterials
- modelling, predicting and understanding anthropogenic and climate-driven changes on sponge ecosystems
- advancing the science-policy interface by developing tools for management and governance across the North Atlantic.
The main conclusions of the project:
- Sponge grounds encompass a large variety of habitats and are widely distributed across the North Atlantic, on continental shelves, slopes and offshore seamounts
- These habitats are biodiversity hotspots and our knowledge of this diversity will increase as new deep-sea areas are explored
- Sponge grounds increase the three-dimensional structural complexity of ecosystems
- Taxonomic and functional diversity of sponge-associated microbiomes is unprecedented for deep-sea habitats. Established microbial reference baselines will be valuable tools to monitor these ecosystems
- Sponge habitats distribution and connectivity patterns are predicted to change under global change
- Sponge aggregations are important for marine silicon cycling acting as biogenic silica sinks
- Deep-sea sponges and their associated microbiomes recycle and transfer organic matter to higher trophic levels through so called sponge-loop
- The resilience and recovery potential of sponge habitats to anthropogenic stressors depends on community composition and the type and magnitude of the stressor
- Deep-sea sponges and their associated microbes provide genetic resources and biomaterials for new biotechnological applications
- Few sponge habitats are currently protected. Better protection is needed to ensure long-term sustainable management of their biodiversity and ecosystem services
SponGES explored and mapped deep-sea sponge habitats in seven study areas, spanning the North Atlantic Ocean, and assessed their environmental conditions and seasonal variability. New predictive distribution models, food web and biogeochemical cycling coupled ecosystem models were developed. The knowledge on past and present environmental conditions was used to infer future sponge ground distributions.
Over 30 new sponge species were discovered and reference collections were deposited in seven natural history museums in Europe and North America. 71 microbial phyla, of which about half are novel lineages, were discovered in over 1000 sponge samples.
Identification tools were developed for reporting and monitoring of indicators of sponge Vulnerable Marine Ecosystems (VMEs). Distribution of deep-sea sponges is assembled in the SponGIS database ( which is interoperable with European (EMODnet) and global (Global Biodiversity Information Facility, Ocean Biodiversity Information System) data portals.
The largest genomic database for deep-sea sponges to date was produced. A draft genome, mitochondrial genomes, transcriptomes, (meta)genomic libraries, and 16S metabarcoding datasets were generated. These data were applied to unravel the evolutionary history of deep-sea sponges, the spatial patterns of genetic diversity, connectivity, and structure of sponge populations across the North Atlantic.
Fluxes of dissolved carbon, nitrogen, and silica were characterized to investigate the role of sponge grounds in the biogeochemical cycling and food webs. The resilience of sponge habitats to bottom trawling, exposure to natural sediment or changes in temperature and chemistry were assessed.
(Meta-)genomic/transcriptomic datasets were screened for evolutionary novelties, metabolic peptides and microbial functional differences. Over 2700 genes and gene were identified, many of wich with yet unknown function, providing an excellent source for new pharmaceutical applications.
A major biotechnological breakthrough was the development of a sponge cell line, which is the very first cell line of a marine invertebrate. This forms the basis for developing new environmental and human health applications. Sponge cell lines can be used to study sponge cellular and molecular biology and to scale-up production of sponge-derived chemicals for clinical trials.
The micro-architectural features and biosilica of deep-sea sponges were used for the development of tissue engineering scaffolds with potential human health applications. A 3D-printing methodology and scaffolds with an application in the regeneration of bone tissue were developed.
SponGES Key Exploitable Results were disseminated through the EC Horizon Results Platform. A plan for their exploitation beyond the project lifecycle was developed. 70 peer-reviewed publications and 91 datasets are currently available in Open Access sources. A special issue on “Deep-sea Sponge Ecosystems” with 25 articles was produced in Frontiers in Marine Science.
Awareness of deep-sea sponge ecosystems has been raised in round table events. SponGES results have been presented to various (inter)national stakeholders, and six policy briefs were published. Communication and awareness raising material have been distributed at the FAO Committee on Fisheries and at the UN. SponGES results will be used to develop a status assessment for the OSPAR List of Threatened and/or Declining Species and Habitats.
SponGES produced detailed maps of current and future distributions. These can be used to improve biodiversity conservation and sustainable use of sponge grounds. Researchers will benefit from the genomic datasets when studying the biology and molecular evolution of organisms that possess unique adaptations to their extreme habitats.
The combination of the genetic units, dispersal patterns, and reproductive features with the particle tracking modelling will be fundamental to assess the connectivity of deep-sea sponges in the North Atlantic. This information will enhance our ability to design efficient conservation areas.
The development of a sponge cell line provides the basis for in vitro production of chemicals and other bioproducts that will be invaluable to other researchers and the industry.
SponGES has begun to upscale individual physiological rates to community and ecosystem levels, addressing the global role of North-Atlantic sponge grounds in the benthic-pelagic coupling of inorganic nutrients, carbon and oxygen. This will result in large-scale coupled ecosystem-climate models allowing an unparalleled understanding of the functional ecology of sponge-dominated deep-sea ecosystems. Such models are critical to assess the impacts of anthropogenic stressors.
The knowledge and tools produced in SponGES will support the development of strategic policies and instruments towards the achievement of biodiversity and sustainability goals, core principles of the EU Blue Growth strategy and the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
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
Pheronema ground surveyed with the submersible LULA. ©Rebikoff Foundation
In situ assessment of sponge densities for biomass estimations
Ex situ incubations of Geodia atlantica