A University of Richmond student has become the first person to find hair-like projections that sensor movement in some of SpongeBob’s relatives. The sponge in question is the Cliona varians, “a saltwater sponge that grows mostly in the tropics, such as the Florida Keys and the Caribbean,” said sophomore Cassandra Ceballos, who is head of the investigation.

The research lab of Malcolm Hill, biology professor and associate dean of School of Arts and Sciences, conducted fieldwork in the Florida Keys this past summer. “I collected samples of Cliona varians that were untouched, therefore relaxed, and put them in fixative, a preservative liquid,” Ceballos said. Other samples of the same species had been touched and bothered until their excretory structure, or osculum, had closed up.

After that, both the relaxed and the bothered sponges were sliced in half and analyzed using a special microscope. When it came to the bothered sponge, Ceballos said, “You could see the tissue had constricted within itself and moved, whereas the relaxed tissue was completely smooth and unconstricted.”

Toward the top area of the sponge, where the osculum is located, Ceballos found cilia, hair-like projections that sense movement. Cilia have never been found in these species of sponges. “I did data analysis on the occurrence of the cilia and found there was a much higher concentration of it in the first 1.5 mm from the osculum than in the rest of the tissue,” she said. These findings suggest the likely relationship between cilia and the sponges twitching, as they don’t have muscles or nervous systems. Further research studies on a deeper level will determine the real meaning of Ceballos’ findings on sponge movement.

Cassandra Ceballos will officially present the results from her research at the HHMI Science Symposium with other students from 2:30 to 4 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 26 in the Gottwald Science Center.

Contact reporter Antonio De Mora Vázquez at antonio.demora@richmond.edu

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