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Neuroactive substances specifically modulate rhythmic body contractions in the nerveless metazoon Tethya wilhelma (Demospongiae, Porifera)

Kornelia Ellwanger and Michael Nickel*

Author Affiliations

Department of Zoology, Biological Institute, University of Stuttgart, 70550 Stuttgart, Germany

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Frontiers in Zoology 2006, 3:7  doi:10.1186/1742-9994-3-7

Published: 27 April 2006



Sponges (Porifera) are nerve- and muscleless metazoa, but display coordinated motor reactions. Therefore, they represent a valuable phylum to investigate coordination systems, which evolved in a hypothetical Urmetazoon prior to the central nervous system (CNS) of later metazoa. We have chosen the contractile and locomotive species Tethya wilhelma (Demospongiae, Hadromerida) as a model system for our research, using quantitative analysis based on digital time lapse imaging. In order to evaluate candidate coordination pathways, we extracorporeally tested a number of chemical messengers, agonists and antagonists known from chemical signalling pathways in animals with CNS.


Sponge body contraction of T. wilhelma was induced by caffeine, glycine, serotonine, nitric oxide (NO) and extracellular cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP). The induction by glycine and cAMP followed patterns varying from other substances. Induction by cAMP was delayed, while glycine lead to a bi-phasic contraction response. The frequency of the endogenous contraction rhythm of T. wilhelma was significantly decreased by adrenaline and NO, with the same tendency for cAMP and acetylcholine. In contrast, caffeine and glycine increased the contraction frequency. The endogenous rhythm appeared irregular during application of caffeine, adrenaline, NO and cAMP. Caffeine, glycine and NO attenuated the contraction amplitude. All effects on the endogenous rhythm were neutralised by the washout of the substances from the experimental reactor system.


Our study demonstrates that a number of chemical messengers, agonists and antagonists induce contraction and/or modulate the endogenous contraction rhythm and amplitude of our nerveless model metazoon T. wilhelma. We conclude that a relatively complex system of chemical messengers regulates the contraction behaviour through auto- and paracrine signalling, which is presented in a hypothetical model. We assume that adrenergic, adenosynergic and glycinergic pathways, as well as pathways based on NO and extracellular cAMP are candidates for the regulation and timing of the endogenous contraction rhythm within pacemaker cells, while GABA, glutamate and serotonine are candidates for the direct coordination of the contractile cells.