Sponge farming for medicine production and water bioremediation

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By Milthon Lujan

For over a century, scientists have been experimenting with sponge cultivation, those soft and colorful marine creatures. Initially focused on bath sponges and ornaments, recent research has shifted towards biomass production.


Sponges contain unique bioactive compounds, many of which have promising applications in medicine, cosmetics, and nutraceuticals. Unfortunately, these compounds are often found in low concentrations, making traditional extraction impractical.

Scientists from the Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn, University of Naples Federico II, University of Genoa, and the Institute for Environmental Protection and Research (ISPRA) published a scientific review exploring the exciting potential of marine sponges, delving into their unique abilities and cutting-edge research harnessing their power.

Benefits of sponge cultivation

Here’s where sponge cultivation comes in:

Environmentally friendly medicine

By cultivating sponges, we can sustainably obtain larger quantities of these valuable compounds, reducing pressure on wild populations and offering an ecological alternative. Imagine treatments for cancer, inflammation, and even Alzheimer’s disease derived from the ocean’s hidden treasures!

Nature’s water filters

Beyond medicine, sponges play a crucial role in marine ecosystems. As filter feeders, they can clean large amounts of water, removing up to 80% of suspended particles. This makes them excellent candidates for bioremediation, the natural process of removing contaminants from the environment.

Ocean cleanup

Research shows promising results by combining sponge cultivation with bioremediation. Imagine sponge farms strategically located to filter contaminants like heavy metals, pesticides, and even microplastics from our oceans! This integrated approach could lead to cleaner and healthier marine environments.

Cultivation methods

For years, sponge cultivation seemed like an impossible dream. These unique organisms, with their diverse shapes and intricate filtration systems, thrived in the vastness of the ocean, seemingly beyond our ability to replicate their natural environment. But scientists are making remarkable breakthroughs, and captive breeding is emerging as a turning point in sponge research.

One of the biggest challenges in sponge cultivation lies in the complex interaction of environmental factors influencing their growth. In a controlled captivity environment, scientists can finally isolate and manipulate these variables, one by one. Parameters like salinity, temperature, water flow, light, nutrients, and even microbial propagation can be carefully monitored and adjusted, revealing the secrets behind optimal sponge growth.

Researchers are exploring various cultivation methods, each with its advantages. Fragmentation involves cutting sponge samples into smaller pieces, while complete individual cultures aim to grow entire sponges without fragmentation. These pieces or individuals are then attached to different substrates, providing a platform for their growth.

Sponges can be cultivated in two ways:

  • In situ: Growing them directly in the ocean, attached to lines or submerged structures. This mimics their natural environment and minimizes disturbances.
  • In the laboratory: Rearing them in controlled tanks, allowing for faster growth and easier access for research and production.
Aquaculture methods: (A) culture of sponges on suspended threads/ropes; (B) culture on vertical soft mesh bags; (C) culture on horizontal grids. Source: Amato et al., (2024); Frontiers in Marine Science.
Aquaculture methods: (A) culture of sponges on suspended threads/ropes; (B) culture on vertical soft mesh bags; (C) culture on horizontal grids. Source: Amato et al., (2024); Frontiers in Marine Science.

Challenges and Opportunities

  • Cultivating sponges in controlled environments is not always easy, but research is making significant strides. New techniques are being developed to overcome challenges and unlock the full potential of sponge farming.
  • Combining biomass production with bioremediation in integrated aquaculture systems holds immense promise for the future. This approach could not only provide valuable natural products but also contribute to a healthier planet.

Sponges in Integrated Multitrophic Aquaculture (IMTA)

Despite their ecological benefits and bioremediation capabilities, sponges remain underutilized in IMTA systems. But the tide is turning! Studies show impressive results:

  • Sponge growth: Sponges like Chondrosia reniformis thrived in IMTA, achieving a remarkable survival rate of 86% and growth rates of 170% compared to wild specimens.
  • Waste transformation: Sponges convert dissolved organic matter from algae into food for other organisms, playing a key role in the nutrient cycle.
  • Stress resilience: Even when facing initial challenges, sponges like Sarcotragus spinosulus demonstrate remarkable adaptation and regeneration, doubling their volume in a year.

While promising, optimizing sponge performance in IMTA requires further research. Understanding their specific needs and identifying the most effective combinations with other species will be crucial.

The potential of sponges in IMTA is enormous. By unlocking their power, we can create a more sustainable future for aquaculture, one where delicious seafood goes hand in hand with a healthy planet.

Future of Sponge Aquaculture

Although still in its early stages, sponge farming holds immense potential for both environmental and economic benefits. By optimizing cultivation methods and exploring integrated aquaculture approaches, we can unlock the full potential of these fascinating creatures.

Sponge farming still faces challenges, but its potential for sustainable biomass production, natural medicine development, and marine bioremediation is undeniable. As research progresses, we may see sponge farms become vital players in a future where the ocean provides both medicines and environmental solutions.

Reference (open access)
Amato, A., Esposito, R., Federico, S., Pozzolini, M., Giovine, M., Bertolino, M., … & Costantini, M. Marine sponges as promising candidates for integrated aquaculture combining biomass increase and bioremediation: an updated review. Frontiers in Marine Science, 10, 1234225.