Paleoclimate and Evolution: Emergence of Sponges During the Neoproterozoic

  • Werner E. G. Müller
  • Xiaohong Wang
  • Heinz C. Schröder
Part of the Progress in Molecular and Subcellular Biology book series (PMSB, volume 47)


In the last 15 years, we had to cope with many technological and conceptual obstacles. The major hindrance was the view that sponges are primitive and exist separated from the other metazoan organisms. After answering these problems, the painful scientific process to position the most enigmatic metazoan phylum, the Porifera, into the correct phylogenetic place among the eukaryotes in general and the multicellular animals in particular came to an end. The well-studied taxon Porifera (sponges) was first grouped to the animal-plants or plant-animals, then to the Zoophyta or Mesozoa, and finally to the Parazoa. Only by the application of molecular biological techniques was it possible to place the Porifera monophyletically with the other metazoan phyla, justifying a unification of all multicellular animals to only one kingdom, the Metazoa. The first strong support came from the discovery that cell–cell and cell–matrix adhesion molecules, that were cloned from sponges (mainly the demosponges Suberites domuncula and Geodia cydonium) and that were subsequently expressed, share high DNA sequence and protein function similarity with the corresponding molecules of other metazoans. Together with the molecular biological studies and with the use of the cell culture technologies (primmorphs), which allowed an insight into the stem cell system of these simple organisms, it was possible to stethoscope back in the paleontological history of animals. These studies confirmed the view that the sponges evolved between two epochal ice times, 710–680 Ma (Sturtian glaciation) and 605–585 Ma (Varanger-Marinoan ice age), a period which allowed evolution to proceed but resulted also in a mass extinction of most animal taxa, with the exception of the Porifera. These animals could develop in the aqueous milieu which was rich in silica, due also to their ability to live in a symbiosis with unicellular organisms (prokaryotic and also eukaryotic). Those organisms provided the sponges with the nutrition to survive and to overcome the food deprivation in cold water and even in an environment under the ice. Based on the diverse genetic toolkit, the sponges could also resist the adverse temperature and sunlight climatic influences. It is fortunate that the sponges survived the last 800 million years with their basic body plan. This fact might qualify the sponges to become model organisms not only in biology and molecular biology but also to be used – as living fossils – as reference organisms to deduce important and new insights in the understanding of fossil records explored from the Neoproterozoic. Taken together, these data caused a paradigmatic change; the Porifera are complex and simple, but by far not primitive, and they contribute to the understanding of the deep evolution of animals in molecular biological and paleontological views.


Marine Sponge Siliceous Sponge Glia Maturation Factor Living Fossil Siliceous Spicule 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • Werner E. G. Müller
    • 1
  • Xiaohong Wang
    • 1
  • Heinz C. Schröder
    • 1
  1. 1.National Research Center for GeoanalysisBeijingChina

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