In a little tidy-up of old files, I ran across a paper on sneezing sponges. This is not an April Fool’s joke – today is the 2nd of April. When we sneeze, we fill our lungs and then hold the air in while increasing the pressure on the lung. When we open up and let the air out, it rushes out, moving particles, mucous and irritants as it rushes. Sponges take in water all over their surface but the water exits through one hole. In order to rid themselves of particles and irritants, they close that single hole while continuing to take in water. When the exit is opened, the water inside comes out with some force.
Sponges are such primitive animals that they have no muscles and no nervous system. Until recently it was believed that they also lacked sense organs. But they do have a sense organ and that is how they are able to organize a sneeze. The exit hole (osculum) is lined with cells that have little hairs (cilia) protruding into the water stream. These cilia can sense grit and changes in flow. The cilia are of a type called ‘primary’; they cannot move but can sense being moved. Primary cilia are found in a number of sensory organs in other animals; for example, in our ears and the lateral line of fishes. The general molecular structure of primary cilia is more or less conserved over multicellular animals.
In the same way that the molecules needed for neurons and synapses are seen in organisms that have no nervous systems, this is another component of our nervous system that has a very ancient lineage.
Here is the abstract of the paper ( D. Ludeman, N. Farrar, A. Riesgo, J. Paps, S. Leys; Evolutionary origins of sensation in metazoans: functional evidence for a new sensory organ in sponges. BMC Evolutionary Biology, 2014; 14 (1): 3 ):
“Background: One of the hallmarks of multicellular organisms is the ability of their cells to trigger responses to the environment in a coordinated manner. In recent years primary cilia have been shown to be present as ‘antennae’ on almost all animal cells, and are involved in cell-to-cell signaling in development and tissue homeostasis; how this sophisticated sensory system arose has been little-studied and its evolution is key to understanding how sensation arose in the Animal Kingdom. Sponges (Porifera), one of the earliest evolving phyla, lack conventional muscles and nerves and yet sense and respond to changes in their fluid environment. Here we demonstrate the presence of non-motile cilia in sponges and studied their role as flow sensors.
Results: Demosponges excrete wastes from their body with a stereotypic series of whole-body contractions using a structure called the osculum to regulate the water-flow through the body. In this study we show that short cilia line the inner epithelium of the sponge osculum. Ultrastructure of the cilia shows an absence of a central pair of microtubules and high speed imaging shows they are non-motile, suggesting they are not involved in generating flow. In other animals non-motile, ‘primary’, cilia are involved in sensation. Here we show that molecules known to block cationic ion channels in primary cilia and which inhibit sensory function in other organisms reduce or eliminate sponge contractions. Removal of the cilia using chloral hydrate, or removal of the whole osculum, also stops the contractions; in all instances the effect is reversible, suggesting that the cilia are involved in sensation. An analysis of sponge transcriptomes shows the presence of several transient receptor potential (TRP) channels including PKD channels known to be involved in sensing changes in flow in other animals. Together these data suggest that cilia in sponge oscula are involved in flow sensation and coordination of simple behaviour.
Conclusions: This is the first evidence of arrays of non-motile cilia in sponge oscula. Our findings provide support for the hypothesis that the cilia are sensory, and if true, the osculum may be considered a sensory organ that is used to coordinate whole animal responses in sponges. Arrays of primary cilia like these could represent the first step in the evolution of sensory and coordination systems in metazoans. ”