A pinboard by
Tahsha Say

PhD Candidate, The University of Queensland, Australia


Environmental signals initiate the irrevocable transition from larva to adult in a coral reef sponge

The health and stability of coral reefs, one of the most diverse and productive ecosystems on Earth, depends upon the successful settlement and metamorphosis of microscopic free-swimming larvae into reef-dwelling adults. Larval settlement and metamorphosis is often irrevocable, so the consequences of settlement in an unsuitable habitat could be detrimental. Therefore, larval settlement is often contingent upon the detection of specific environmental signals that identify a suitable location for adult survival and growth. However, almost nothing is known about the sophisticated sensory systems, engineered at the molecular level, that are used by these larvae to detect environmental settlement cues.

We investigate the source, nature and perception of environmental signals that initiate larval settlement in the Great Barrier Reef sponge, Amphimedon queenslandica. This sponge is one of the best-characterised marine species for ecological genomic studies and represents one of the most basal animal phyla, and is thus a critical comparative model for understanding the evolutionary origins of the biphasic lifecycle. A combination of behavioural and molecular approaches has enabled the identification of some chemosensory and light-response genes that orchestrate the metamorphic transition from larva to adult in this sponge. These genes help a larva to sense their environment to locate a suitable habitat whereto settle down and begin their final adult existence, a fundamental process governing the survival, connectivity and evolution of coral reefs.


Transcriptome profiling of the demosponge Amphimedon queenslandica reveals genome-wide events that accompany major life cycle transitions.

Abstract: The biphasic life cycle with pelagic larva and benthic adult stages is widely observed in the animal kingdom, including the Porifera (sponges), which are the earliest branching metazoans. The demosponge, Amphimedon queenslandica, undergoes metamorphosis from a free-swimming larva into a sessile adult that bears no morphological resemblance to other animals. While the genome of A. queenslandica contains an extensive repertoire of genes very similar to that of complex bilaterians, it is as yet unclear how this is drawn upon to coordinate changing morphological features and ecological demands throughout the sponge life cycle.To identify genome-wide events that accompany the pelagobenthic transition in A. queenslandica, we compared global gene expression profiles at four key developmental stages by sequencing the poly(A) transcriptome using SOLiD technology. Large-scale changes in transcription were observed as sponge larvae settled on the benthos and began metamorphosis. Although previous systematics suggest that the only clear homology between Porifera and other animals is in the embryonic and larval stages, we observed extensive use of genes involved in metazoan-associated cellular processes throughout the sponge life cycle. Sponge-specific transcripts are not over-represented in the morphologically distinct adult; rather, many genes that encode typical metazoan features, such as cell adhesion and immunity, are upregulated. Our analysis further revealed gene families with candidate roles in competence, settlement, and metamorphosis in the sponge, including transcription factors, G-protein coupled receptors and other signaling molecules.This first genome-wide study of the developmental transcriptome in an early branching metazoan highlights major transcriptional events that accompany the pelagobenthic transition and point to a network of regulatory mechanisms that coordinate changes in morphology with shifting environmental demands. Metazoan developmental and structural gene orthologs are well-integrated into the expression profiles at every stage of sponge development, including the adult. The utilization of genes involved in metazoan-associated processes throughout sponge development emphasizes the potential of the genome of the last common ancestor of animals to generate phenotypic complexity.

Pub.: 01 Jun '12, Pinned: 30 Jul '17

Sensory Flask Cells in Sponge Larvae Regulate Metamorphosis via Calcium Signaling.

Abstract: The Porifera (sponges) is one of the earliest phyletic lineages to branch off the metazoan tree. Although the body-plan of sponges is among the simplest in the animal kingdom and sponges lack nervous systems that communicate environmental signals to other cells, their larvae have sensory systems that generate coordinated responses to environmental cues. In eumetazoans (Cnidaria and Bilateria), the nervous systems of larvae often regulate metamorphosis through Ca(2+)-dependent signal transduction. In sponges, neither the identity of the receptor system that detects an inductive environmental cue (hereafter "metamorphic cues") nor the signaling system that mediates settlement and metamorphosis are known. Using a combination of behavioral assays and surgical manipulations, we show here that specialized epithelial cells-referred to as flask cells-enriched in the anterior third of the Amphimedon queenslandica larva are most likely to be the sensory cells that detect the metamorphic cues. Surgical removal of the region enriched in flask cells in a larva inhibits the initiation of metamorphosis. The flask cell has an apical sensory apparatus with a cilium surrounded by an apical F-actin-rich protrusion, and numerous vesicles, hallmarks of eumetazoan sensory-neurosecretory cells. We demonstrate that these flask cells respond to metamorphic cues by elevating intracellular Ca(2+) levels, and that this elevation is necessary for the initiation of metamorphosis. Taken together, these analyses suggest that sponge larvae have sensory-secretory epithelial cells capable of converting exogenous cues into internal signals via Ca(2+)-mediated signaling, which is necessary for the initiation of metamorphosis. Similarities in the morphology, physiology, and function of the sensory flask cells in sponge larvae with the sensory/neurosecretory cells in eumetazoan larvae suggest this sensory system predates the divergence of Porifera and Eumetazoa.

Pub.: 23 Apr '15, Pinned: 30 Jul '17

An ancient role for nitric oxide in regulating the animal pelagobenthic life cycle: evidence from a marine sponge.

Abstract: In many marine invertebrates, larval metamorphosis is induced by environmental cues that activate sensory receptors and signalling pathways. Nitric oxide (NO) is a gaseous signalling molecule that regulates metamorphosis in diverse bilaterians. In most cases NO inhibits or represses this process, although it functions as an activator in some species. Here we demonstrate that NO positively regulates metamorphosis in the poriferan Amphimedon queenslandica. High rates of A. queenslandica metamorphosis normally induced by a coralline alga are inhibited by an inhibitor of nitric oxide synthase (NOS) and by a NO scavenger. Consistent with this, an artificial donor of NO induces metamorphosis even in the absence of the alga. Inhibition of the ERK signalling pathway prevents metamorphosis in concert with, or downstream of, NO signalling; a NO donor cannot override the ERK inhibitor. NOS gene expression is activated late in embryogenesis and in larvae, and is enriched in specific epithelial and subepithelial cell types, including a putative sensory cell, the globular cell; DAF-FM staining supports these cells being primary sources of NO. Together, these results are consistent with NO playing an activating role in induction of A. queenslandica metamorphosis, evidence of its highly conserved regulatory role in metamorphosis throughout the Metazoa.

Pub.: 23 Nov '16, Pinned: 30 Jul '17

Think like a sponge: the genetic signal of sensory cells in sponges.

Abstract: A complex genetic repertoire underlies the apparently simple body plan of sponges. Among the genes present in poriferans are those fundamental to the sensory and nervous systems of other animals. Sponges are dynamic and sensitive animals and it is intuitive to link these genes to behaviour. The proposal that ctenophores are the earliest diverging metazoan has led to the question of whether sponges possess a 'pre-nervous' system or have undergone nervous system loss. Both lines of thought generally assume that the last common ancestor of sponges and eumetazoans possessed the genetic modules that underlie sensory abilities. By corollary extant sponges may possess a sensory cell homologous to one present in the last common ancestor, a hypothesis that has been studied by gene expression. We have performed a meta-analysis of all gene expression studies published to date to explore whether gene expression is indicative of a feature's sensory function. In sponges we find that eumetazoan sensory-neural markers are not particularly expressed in structures with known sensory functions. Instead it is common for these genes to be expressed in cells with no known or uncharacterized sensory function. Indeed, many sensory-neural markers so far studied are expressed during development, perhaps because many are transcription factors. This suggests that the genetic signal of a sponge sensory cell is dissimilar enough to be unrecognizable when compared to a bilaterian sensory or neural cell. It is possible that sensory-neural markers have as yet unknown functions in sponge cells, such as assembling an immunological synapse in the larval globular cell. Furthermore, the expression of sensory-neural markers in non-sensory cells, such as adult and larval epithelial cells, suggest that these cells may have uncharacterized sensory functions. While this does not rule out the co-option of ancestral sensory modules in later evolving groups, a distinct genetic foundation may underlie the sponge sensory system.

Pub.: 26 Jun '17, Pinned: 30 Jul '17

Turbulent shear spurs settlement in larval sea urchins.

Abstract: Marine invertebrates commonly produce larvae that disperse in ocean waters before settling into adult shoreline habitat. Chemical and other seafloor-associated cues often facilitate this latter transition. However, the range of effectiveness of such cues is limited to small spatial scales, creating challenges for larvae in finding suitable sites at which to settle, especially given that they may be carried many kilometers by currents during their planktonic phase. One possible solution is for larvae to use additional, broader-scale environmental signposts to first narrow their search to the general vicinity of a candidate settlement location. Here we demonstrate strong effects of just such a habitat-scale cue, one with the potential to signal larvae that they have arrived in appropriate coastal areas. Larvae of the purple sea urchin (Strongylocentrotus purpuratus) exhibit dramatic enhancement in settlement following stimulation by turbulent shear typical of wave-swept shores where adults of this species live. This response manifests in an unprecedented fashion relative to previously identified cues. Turbulent shear does not boost settlement by itself. Instead, it drives a marked developmental acceleration that causes "precompetent" larvae refractory to chemical settlement inducers to immediately become "competent" and thereby reactive to such inducers. These findings reveal an unrecognized ability of larval invertebrates to shift the trajectory of a major life history event in response to fluid-dynamic attributes of a target environment. Such an ability may improve performance and survival in marine organisms by encouraging completion of their life cycle in advantageous locations.

Pub.: 11 Apr '13, Pinned: 30 Jul '17