Box 172 Sponge Farming

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Sponges have been used for cosmetic, bath, or industrial applications since early Grecian times (one early reference is in Homer's The Iliad). However, modern supply, which is predominantly from wild harvest fisheries, is unable to meet a well-established global demand. This shortfall presents an opportunity for sponge production through in-sea aquaculture. Sponges grow easily from cuttings, on lines or mesh panels suspended in the water column. Research has shown that commercially viable sponge farming can be achieved within a sustainable environmental footprint using basic infrastructure, and this opportunity is currently being explored by remote coastal Aboriginal communities in the GBR region and elsewhere in the south Pacific.

There is further opportunity to expand the species targeted for sponge farming to include those that elicit promising bioactive compounds. To date, many of these have not progressed in drug development due to the lack of reliable supply. Bulk wild collection is not suitable because the compounds are often produced in low yields, and their structural complexity makes them initially difficult to synthesise. Access to large quantities of sponges is necessary, and development of sponge aquaculture has provided a production option. While this opportunity is potentially quite lucrative, it is also high risk and at best transient for any one chemical entity. While aquaculture has already played an important role in supply for drug development research and proof of concept, history shows that industry prefers synthesis for global market supply, often based on a variation and simplification of the natural molecule. (Libby Evans-Illidge, Carsten Wolff & Alan Duckworth, AIMS.)

Figure 17.9 Sponge farming trials at the Palm Is on the GBR. Sponge explants being grown in mesh panels. (Photo: AIMS.)

which the sponge cells interact at various levels (from predation to commensalism). In addition to nutrients acquired through filter feeding activities sponges may ingest a myriad of toxic chemicals excreted by other plants and animals from the coral reefs above, which they modify (sequester) and reuse for their own purposes. The combination of chemicals produced by normal sponge metabolism, those sequestered from the seawater, and those produced by or in combination with the resident microbial populations makes sponges among the most toxic of all life forms, and hence of great interest to the pharmaceutical industry (Box 17.1 and Fig. 17.2).

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