The unique skeleton of siliceous sponges (Porifera; Hexactinellida and Demospongiae) that evolved first from the Urmetazoa during the Proterozoic: a review
Sponges (phylum Porifera) had been considered as an enigmatic phylum, prior to the analysis of their genetic repertoire/tool kit. Already with the isolation of the first adhesion molecule, galectin, it became clear that the sequences of sponge cell surface receptors and of molecules forming the intracellular signal transduction pathways triggered by them, share high similarity with those identified in other metazoan phyla. These studies demonstrated that all metazoan phyla, including Porifera, originate from one common ancestor, the Urmetazoa. The sponges evolved prior to the Ediacaran-Cambrian boundary (542 million years ago [myr]) during two major "snowball earth events", the Sturtian glaciation (710 to 680 myr) and the Varanger-Marinoan ice ages (605 to 585 myr). During this period the ocean was richer in silica due to the silicate weathering. The oldest sponge fossils (Hexactinellida) have been described from Australia, China and Mongolia and are thought to have existed coeval with the diverse Ediacara fauna. Only little younger are the fossils discovered in the Sansha section in Hunan (Early Cambrian; China). It has been proposed that only the sponges possessed the genetic repertoire to cope with the adverse conditions, e.g. temperature-protection molecules or proteins protecting them against ultraviolet radiation.
The skeletal elements of the Hexactinellida (model organisms Monorhaphis chuni and Monorhaphis intermedia or Hyalonema sieboldi) and Demospongiae (models Suberites domuncula and Geodia cydonium), the spicules, are formed enzymatically by the anabolic enzyme silicatein and the catabolic enzyme silicase. Both, the spicules of Hexactinellida and of Demospongiae, comprise a central axial canal and an axial filament which harbors the silicatein. After intracellular formation of the first lamella around the channel and the subsequent extracellular apposition of further lamellae the spicules are completed in a net formed of collagen fibers.
The data summarized here substantiate that with the finding of silicatein a new aera in the field of bio/inorganic chemistry started. For the first time strategies could be formulated and experimentally proven that allow the formation/synthesis of inorganic structures by organic molecules. These findings are not only of importance for the further understanding of basic pathways in the body plan formation of sponges but also of eminent importance for applied/commercial processes in a sustainable use of biomolecules for novel bio/inorganic materials.