Phylum Porifera

Morphology of Sponges

The morphology of the simplest sponges takes the shape of a cylinder with a large central cavity, the spongocoel, occupying the inside of the cylinder. Water can enter into the spongocoel from numerous pores in the body wall. Water entering the spongocoel is extruded via a large common opening called the osculum. However, sponges exhibit a range of diversity in body forms, including variations in the size of the spongocoel, the number of osculi, and where the cells that filter food from the water are located.

While sponges (excluding the hexactinellids) do not exhibit tissue-layer organization, they do have different cell types that perform distinct functions. Pinacocytes, which are epithelial-like cells, form the outermost layer of sponges and enclose a jelly-like substance called mesohyl. Mesohyl is an extracellular matrix consisting of a collagen-like gel with suspended cells that perform various functions. The gel-like consistency of mesohyl acts like an endoskeleton and maintains the tubular morphology of sponges. In addition to the osculum, sponges have multiple pores called ostia on their bodies that allow water to enter the sponge. In some sponges, ostia are formed by porocytes, single tube-shaped cells that act as valves to regulate the flow of water into the spongocoel. In other sponges, ostia are formed by folds in the body wall of the sponge.

Choanocytes (“collar cells”) are present at various locations, depending on the type of sponge, but they always line the inner portions of some space through which water flows (the spongocoel in simple sponges, canals within the body wall in more complex sponges, and chambers scattered throughout the body in the most complex sponges). Whereas pinacocytes line the outside of the sponge, choanocytes tend to line certain inner portions of the sponge body that surround the mesohyl. The structure of a choanocyte is critical to its function, which is to generate a water current through the sponge and to trap and ingest food particles by phagocytosis. Note the similarity in appearance between the sponge choanocyte and choanoflagellates (Protista). This similarity suggests that sponges and choanoflagellates are closely related and likely share a recent common ancestry. The cell body is embedded in mesohyl and contains all organelles required for normal cell function, but protruding into the “open space” inside of the sponge is a mesh-like collar composed of microvilli with a single flagellum in the center of the column. The cumulative effect of the flagella from all choanocytes aids the movement of water through the sponge: drawing water into the sponge through the numerous ostia, into the spaces lined by choanocytes, and eventually out through the osculum (or osculi). In the meantime, food particles, including waterborne bacteria and algae, are trapped by the sieve-like collar of the choanocytes, slide down into the body of the cell, are ingested by phagocytosis, and become encased in a food vacuole. Lastly, choanocytes will differentiate into sperm for sexual reproduction, where they will become dislodged from the mesohyl and leave the sponge with expelled water through the osculum.

Link to Learning

QR Code representing a URL

Watch this video to see the movement of water through the sponge body.

The second crucial cells in sponges are called amoebocytes (or archaeocytes), named for the fact that they move throughout the mesohyl in an amoeba-like fashion. Amoebocytes have a variety of functions: delivering nutrients from choanocytes to other cells within the sponge, giving rise to eggs for sexual reproduction (which remain in the mesohyl), delivering phagocytized sperm from choanocytes to eggs, and differentiating into more-specific cell types. Some of these more-specific cell types include collencytes and lophocytes, which produce the collagen-like protein to maintain the mesohyl, sclerocytes, which produce spicules in some sponges, and spongocytes, which produce the protein spongin in the majority of sponges. These cells produce collagen to maintain the consistency of the mesohyl. The different cell types in sponges are shown in Figure.

Art Connection

Part a shows a cross-section of a sponge, which is vase-shaped. The central opening is called the spongocoel. The body is filled with a gel-like substance called mesohyl. Pores within the body, called ostia, allow water to enter the spongocoel. Water exits through a top opening called an osculum. Part b shows an enlarged view of the sponge body. The outer surface is covered with cells called pinacocytes, which form the skin. Pinacocytes consume large food particles by phagocytosis. The inner surface is lined with cells called choanocytes, which have flagella that move water through the body. The mesohyl is sandwiched between the outer and inner surfaces. Various cell types exist within this layer. These include collagen-secreting lophocytes, amoebocytes, which carry out a variety of functions, and oocytes. Sclerocytes within this layer produce silica spicules that extend outside the body of the sponge. Porocytes, hollow tube-shaped cells that span the body of the sponge, regulate movement of water through the ostia.
The sponge’s (a) basic body plan and (b) some of the specialized cell types found in sponges are shown.

Which of the following statements is false?

  1. Choanocytes have flagella that propel water through the body.
  2. Pinacocytes can transform into any cell type.
  3. Lophocytes secrete collagen.
  4. Porocytes control the flow of water through pores in the sponge body.

In some sponges, sclerocytes secrete small spicules into the mesohyl, which are composed of either calcium carbonate or silica, depending on the type of sponge. These spicules serve to provide additional stiffness to the body of the sponge. Additionally, spicules, when present externally, may ward off predators. Another type of protein, spongin, may also be present in the mesohyl of some sponges.

Link to Learning

QR Code representing a URL

Take an up-close tour through the sponge and its cells.

The presence and composition of spicules/spongin are the differentiating characteristics of the three classes of sponges (Figure): Class Calcarea contains calcium carbonate spicules and no spongin, class Hexactinellida contains six-rayed siliceous spicules and no spongin, and class Demospongia contains spongin and may or may not have spicules; if present, those spicules are siliceous. Spicules are most conspicuously present in class Hexactinellida, the order consisting of glass sponges. Some of the spicules may attain giant proportions (in relation to the typical size range of glass sponges of 3 to 10 mm) as seen in Monorhaphis chuni, which grows up to 3 m long.

Photo A shows Clathrina clathrus, a yellow sponge composed of many yarn-like strands fused together, giving the appearance of netting. Photo B shows Stauroclayptus, a cream-colored sponge with a pitcher shape. Photo C shows Acarnus erthacus, a flat orange sponge with protrusions that have the appearance of volcanoes. Each volcano-like protrusion has a pore in the middle.
(a) Clathrina clathrus belongs to class Calcarea, (b) Staurocalyptus spp. (common name: yellow Picasso sponge) belongs to class Hexactinellida, and (c) Acarnus erithacus belongs to class Demospongia. (credit a: modification of work by Parent Géry; credit b: modification of work by Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, NOAA; credit c: modification of work by Sanctuary Integrated Monitoring Network, Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, NOAA)

Link to Learning

QR Code representing a URL

Use the Interactive Sponge Guide to identify species of sponges based on their external form, mineral skeleton, fiber, and skeletal architecture.

2 of 7