Dr Maja Adamska is flipping through a textbook, and stops to show a photo of what looks like a lumpy blob.
“Oh, yes, this is one of my favourites,” she says. “This one is really fantastic.”
This particularly fantastic blob is a sea sponge.
Dr Adamska is a biologist with the ANU Research School of Biology, and something of an ambassador for the humble sponge.
Her eyes light up when she’s talking about them, and after hearing what she has to say, yours will too.
“We have always known sponges are our biological cousins, but they are so weird, so we haven’t known how to compare them to true animals with nerves and muscles.
“What we have recently found, however, is that the evolutionary transition between sponges and true animals is much smoother than previously thought.”
Meaning you are more like a sponge than you might realise.
“Sponges don’t have a gut, but they have cells that are responsible for capturing food particles and digesting them, and they use the same molecular mechanisms in the development of these cells that are responsible for the production of your gut.”
And there’s more.
“Another feature we have found is that the genes expressed right around the main opening of the sponge are incidentally the same gene that is expressed during development of our anus.”
As I said, you’ll never look at a sponge in the same way again.
Dr Adamska teaches cell physiology in the Master of Biological Sciences and welcomes postgraduate students to her lab.
“We are investigating how a single cell becomes a complex animal, and I mean that both in the terms of development and evolution: how the single cells 600 to 700 million years ago started to become animals.
“We also get to go on field trips to the beach, to collect sponges of interest.”
All students are at risk, however, of becoming potential sponge ambassadors themselves.
“I actually started looking at sponges because I thought, well, obviously they are simple animals to study,” Dr Adamska says.
“Turns out I was wrong!”