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Multiple defensive roles for triterpene glycosides from two Caribbean sponges


Despite their high nutritional value and a lack of physical defenses, most marine sponges appear to be minimally affected by predators, competitors, and fouling organisms, possibly due to sponge chemical defenses. In the last 15 years, several triterpene glycosides have been isolated from sponges, but their ecological or physiological roles are largely unknown. We tested triterpene glycosides from Erylus formosus and Ectyoplasia ferox, Caribbean sponges belonging to two different orders, in field and laboratory assays for effects on fish feeding, attachment by potential biofilm-forming bacteria, fouling by invertebrates and algae, and overgrowth by neighboring sponges. Formoside and other triterpene glycosides from Erylus formosus deterred predation, microbial attachment, and fouling by invertebrates and algae. Triterpene glycosides from Ectyoplasia ferox were found to be antipredatory and allelopathic. Thus, triterpene glycosides in these sponges appear to have multiple ecological functions. Tests with different triterpene glycosides at several concentrations indicated that small differences in molecular structure affect ecological activity. In order to establish whether triterpene glycosides could be involved in water-borne versus surface-mediated interactions, the presence of triterpene glycosides in the seawater surrounding live sponges was measured using two in situ sampling methods followed by HPLC and NMR spectral analysis. Water-borne triterpene glycosides were below detection limits for both species. However, top sponge layers and swabs of the surfaces of both sponges contained sufficiently high concentrations of triterpene glycosides to deter bacterial settlement and fouling of Erylus formosus surfaces and overgrowth of Ectyoplasia ferox by neighboring sponges. Enemies of these sponges appear to be deterred by surface contact of triterpene glycosides rather than by water-borne interactions. The dual strategy of employing one group of compounds for multiple purposes and minimizing the loss of compounds into seawater suggests that these organisms utilize chemical defenses with efficiency.

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Correspondence to Julia Kubanek.

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Kubanek, J., Whalen, K.E., Engel, S. et al. Multiple defensive roles for triterpene glycosides from two Caribbean sponges. Oecologia 131, 125–136 (2002).

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  • Sponge
  • USA
  • Predation
  • Fouling
  • Allelopathy
  • Chemical defense