Biosciences PhD student discovers a new species of marine sponge

Rachael Ununuma Akpiri, a Commonwealth funded PhD scholar in the laboratory of Dr Nik Hodges first collected the new sponge sample during a field trip to Nigeria in February 2013 as part of her PhD studies to develop marine sponges as a novel tool to assess the genotoxic impact of pollutants on the marine environment of the Niger Delta.

Systematic analysis in collaboration with Professor Rob Van Soest (Naturalis Biodiversity Centre, Department of Marine Zoology) and Professor Eduardo Hajdu (University of Rio de Janeiro) initially identified the sample as being closely related to Amorphinopsis atlantica a species commonly found in Brazil. However, recent sequencing analysis of the cytochrome C and 28S ribosomal RNA genes have revealed sufficient differences for it to now be considered a separate species in its own right.

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Figure 1. A sample of the new species of sponge, A) in situ (on a mangrove stump) and B) in the laboratory

Rachael commented that this is a very important development in my research as it contributes new scientific knowledge about the evolution of sponge species in Nigeria and will be the first ever entry into the sponge barcoding project of a West African species, enabling me to contribute to this important worldwide porifera data base. It’s also fun because I get to choose a name for the new species, but I haven’t decided what to call it yet!

Pollution and environmental damage to agriculture and fisheries in the Niger Delta has for many decades being a very serious problem and Rachael’s wider research, which she hopes to continue through postdoctoral research seeks to develop marine sponges as a rapid and reliable tool for biomonitoring and risk assessment in the marine environment. This could inform the enactment and enforcement of more environmentally friendly policies in commonwealth countries were pollution especially from industrial waste remains a huge challenge.

Find out more:

You can read more about Rachael’s research on sponges as tools for monitoring the marine environment in the Journal of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/etc.3907/full