Look after your sponges!

19 January, 2023

Sponges can save mankind, I tell my neighbour, washing her car. She stares at me.

Caring about climate change and the mass extinction of animals is hard work. Soaring energy bills and mortgage payments are more than enough for most people to cope with. Who has any headspace left over to worry about future generations? How can anyone think about the future of the planet when they can barely afford to fill up the car?

It’s high time brilliant scientists pulled out all the stops to share their science with more people. Otherwise, an important point in doing research is lost. What use will it be for the scientists to be proved right once the earth has burned to a crisp and the oceans are empty?

There’s a dangerous gap between academia and “ordinary” people. Science agrees that climate change is happening but is failing to reach millions of people who prefer to listen to false prophets. Populists are gaining political power by denying science. It’s reassuring to believe lies as long as global warming isn’t too noticeable in your own backyard.

Deep Sea Reporter is keen to be a bridge between research and society. In doing this, we want to find educational ways to explain how everything is connected and to show the link between endangered marine creatures and human survival. It isn’t easy. But I’m placing my hope in… sponges.

Photo: Nadhem Benmbarek

For most of us, the depths of the sea are dark and unknown, or even scary; a different world inhabited by strange creatures. Our lack of knowledge about life under the surface has led to us using the sea as a rubbish tip. We have fished some of the world’s seas to exhaustion, when a hundred years ago they were thought to be filled with a never-ending supply of fish. We exploit the depths of the oceans in search of more hydrocarbons to burn. Multinationals want to start mining in the Pacific Ocean at depths of up to 5,500 metres.* What will happen then? No-one knows the impact this will have on the ecology. No-one knows! But they’ve already started test drilling!

The sea is where all life originates, it gives us oxygen, food and recreation. But its healing power is more unknown.

The oceans are home to a treasure trove of biodiversity. They contain the raw materials for new medicines. And no-one knows how many creatures are waiting to be discovered.

Marine invertebrates produce antibiotics and anti-inflammatory substances, as well as substances used to treat cancer. New research shows that groups of invertebrates such as sponges, molluscs and echinoderms** look particularly promising.

Bild på bläckfisk under ett nattdyk.
Octopuses are a class within the molluscs. Photo: Tobias Dahlin

The Covid-19 pandemic continues to plague the human race. A potential cure has been in the ocean all the time. This week, researchers at the University of British Columbia announced that substances from sea sponges could prevent the coronavirus from infecting human cells.

Marine bacteria found west of Vancouver and off Newfoundland had the same effect.***

My neighbour gazes at her sponge in awe.

– Can I still use it to wash the car?
I reassure her.
– Your sponge is synthetic.


  * https://www.deepseareporter.se/avgorande-vagskal-i-kapplopning-mot-botten/

** https://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/facts/medicinesfromsea.html


Text: Peter Löfgren
Foto: Tobias Dahlin, Nadhem Benmbarek

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