Tuesday, February 20, 2007

New Sponges - Cancer and Other Disease Aids?

Scientists soak up sponges knowledge

Divers have uncovered a treasure trove of underwater animals new to science off the coast of Rathlin Island - but warned that Spongebob Squarepants and his family are already under threat.

The scientists from the Ulster Museum have uncovered 128 different sponge species in the seas off the North Channel island - including nine which are new to Northern Ireland, three which have never been seen in UK waters and 28 which are new to science altogether.

And although most of us are familiar with Spongebob as the bath accessory we use to scrub our backs, it turns out he could be the granddaddy of us all.

New DNA research suggests a sponge could well have been the ancestor of all multi-celled animals - everything from seahorses to dinosaurs to humans.

Bernard Picton, who led the research at Rathlin, says our sponge ancestor probably existed 500 or 600 million years ago. Its descendants could hold the key to future medical research.
The new species found at Rathlin could contain chemicals that are potential antibiotics or anti-cancer drugs, he said.

"It's not just blue sky research," he said.

"We knew that Rathlin Island was an important area for sponges but the results of the project have surpassed our expectations.

"These findings make it one of the most important areas in Europe for sponges and this discovery is particularly important because it will aid other researchers in their study of sponge communities in the future."

Scientists first realised that the sponge communities of Rathlin were unusually rich during a study of Ulster's wildlife 20 years ago, but it was only during the recent six-week scuba diving survey that the four-strong team realised how special the spot is.

The team has collected 849 specimens, taken more than 3,000 photographs and are investigating another 19 species

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