Thursday, 28 November 2013

The 9th International Sponge Conference, 4th-8th November 2013

At the beginning of November, I attended the international sponge conference in Fremantle, Australia. My main research so far, in the UK and Australia, has been concentrated on the ecological and genomic adaptation of marine photosynthetic microbes to their environmental niche. I have only fairly recently started my foray into sponge related science. Sponges (porifera) are very interesting animals which are believed to have been some of the first evolved multicellular eukaryotes. They are practically found on every aquatic bed (freshwater and seawater) and carry out major roles within the marine ecosystem, from structural to chemical. Unfortunately, they are one of the most ignored key players within the bentho-pelagic interactions, with the coral stealing most of the limelight in reef areas and the difficulty of classification presented by sponge species. My main interest lays in the fact that porifera are forming symbiotic relationships with numerous microbes, amongst which are some major photosynthetic microbes. That close bond can even lead to some sponges becoming net primary producers, instead of relying on their heterotrophic particulate food from the water-column for their source of carbon and energy. That sounds pretty groovy to me, and my main interest is now to try and dissect the interaction between the sponge and its cyanobacterial symbiont at the genomic and biochemical level. I would also like to compare those photosynthetic symbionts to the free living related cyanobacteria I have been studying so far.

The sponge conference was an unequalled opportunity to get up to speed with the latest in sponge related science and meet a wide array of researchers, without having to travel the world. I only knew two people in the sponge world at the beginning of the conference, only one was present and quite busy chairing the whole conference! So that means that I had an amazing time of networking. The sponge science community is like a very big family with a nice convivial atmosphere. This contrasts with some other fields of research where there is harsh competition between research groups and character clashes can overshadow meetings.

For a newcomer in all things sponges, the conference was a high intensity crash course. With 6 major research themes, comprising 6 plenary/keynote addresses, 117 oral presentations, 107 posters over 4 days, and various evening events where sponge discussions were helped by a few drinks and nibbles.

I have been impressed by the wide breadth of subjects covered. The much discussed traditional and molecular taxonomy where both sides don't always agree, biotechnology applications (who knew that sponges could be at the basis of nano-circuits and bone implants?) and industry, evolution, ecology, population biology and symbiosis. Enough to be both amazed and completely sponged-out by the close of the formal conference.

We finished the meeting by a sumptuous dinner conference at the Fremantle Yacht club, and the "traditional" sponge songs (as far as I could gather that appears to be a recurrent theme at the close of each sponge conference), which consisted in well known songs with sponge-themed modified lyrics (some of this year's offering comprised Paul Kelly's "from little things big things grow", the Beegees' "staying alive", Men at Work's "down under").

It seems that the next conference will be held in Ireland in about 3 years and I hope I will be able to attend.

The flight back was a bit of an extra adventure with my flight being diverted after a mislanding in Sydney due to horrendous weather, first to Newcastle then to Brisbane, a sleepless night where we have been transfered and given a motel room for the whole of the 2 hours (2-4am) we could stay there before going back to take a flight back to Sydney early in the morning.... I also had to go away straight afterwards for a 3h+ drive from the airport in a (bad!) rented car. Coffee was welcome!

photo from Marie-Claire Demers

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