Sponge genome sequence published, expect the following.

Two students and I currently have a paper in review on genome sizes in sponges, but whether it is accepted or needs major revisions, we will have to update the reference list. This is because the genome sequence of the sponge Amphimedon queenslandica was just published. This is very cool, and allows some interesting comparisons with morphologically more complex animals as well as with the single-celled choanoflagellates. However, this being a genome sequence and all, we can expect the following to show up in various reports:

1. Misconceptions about evolution.

Check. Here’s a headline from a press release by Rice University: “Sponge shines light on life’s origin”. This is off by about 3 billion years. The subtitle to the press release is also awful: “Genome connects the dots between Amphimedon, animal descendants”. Nope. Amphimedon queenslandica is a modern species and is not the ancestor of any non-sponge animals (and probably not of any sponge species either). The common ancestor of all animals may have been sponge-like, but it was not a modern sponge species.

2. Hype about medical significance.

Check. The original paper itself and various news stories play up the “sponges will teach us lots about how to cure cancer” angle. I’ll be glad when (if?) it becomes unnecessary to tie everything to human health for it to gain support. Sequencing the sponge genome has many merits on its own, but the realities of grant competitions dictate that one must often find a link to cancer or climate change to get funded.

Anyway, kudos to the researchers on an interesting contribution to the animal genome dataset!

UPDATE: Along with Jonathan Eisen, I am glad to endorse the press release by UCSB, which shows how important evolutionary concepts can be weaved effectively into a news report. I *almost* was put off by the use of the term “basal”, which is terribly misleading and some implication that this *species* has been around for 650 million years (it definitely has not), but the story author and the researchers interviewed totally redeem themselves with this: “‘You had some ancestral animal that is long-since extinct, and its descendants became these modern-day sponges that we have, and there were other descendants that became the rest of the animal kingdom –– from jellyfish to baboons,’ said Kosik. ‘We speak of the sponge as being this earliest branching phylum, or group of animals.’ ” I’m not sure who the author of the press release was, but he/she did a very nice job here.

1 comment to Sponge genome sequence published, expect the following.

  • “*morphologically* more complex animals” [emph mine]
    I see what you did there, you may carry on ;-)
    Though even morphological complexity itself is still hard to compare in any meaningful way… any suggestions for a replacement for “complexity”? Something devoid of built-in connotations of progress or improvement? Mathematically-speaking, complexity shouldn’t imply any of that, but still so easily misinterpreted by those still in the wrong mindframe…


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