The deep sea sponge, a mechanical wonder of nature

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Credit: NOAA Photo Library | Flickr

The Venus Flower Basket Sponge could inspire the buildings, bridges and even planes of tomorrow, thanks to its performance under pressure and its ability to go with the flow, literally.

Imagine diving into the frozen depths of Antarctica. At 1000 meters below sea level, you are enveloped in a vast inky darkness. Your pressurized fleece wetsuit squeaks under the pressure of thousands of gallons of water.

Strange creatures come in and out of your torch beam. As you explore the seabed, you spot an intriguing shape. It is the sea sponge Euplectella aspergillum or the flower basket of Venus.

Its skeleton is made of silica, the main component of glass. The lattice-like mesh of her body filter feeds tiny food particles from the seawater.

Such a fragile “glass house” seems impossible at these crushing depths. Yet this delicate-looking sponge, only a few millimeters thick, is much stronger than it looks.

Work under pressure

Dr Giovanni Polverino of the Center for Evolutionary Biology at the University of Western Australia is part of an international team studying the remarkable properties of the Venus flower basket.

Researchers are modeling the structure of the sponge to understand how it can withstand such bone crushing depths.

“It is already well known that the structure is very solid”, says Giovanni. “It could inspire new materials with glass as the main element. It’s a human construction based on what natural selection has achieved over hundreds of thousands of years.”

Giovanni studies how the cylindrical shape of the sponge allows water to enter and exit his body. In addition to enduring a high pressure environment, the sponge must adapt to these currents for food and fertilization.

“Super computer, be a sponge”

The researchers used Italy’s most powerful supercomputing center for scientific research, Cineca.

The Marconi supercomputer ranks among the top 10 fastest supercomputers in the world. During its peak periods, it processes at a rate of about 1,000 personal computers.

The team built a digital model that simulated the structure and water flow of the sea sponge. The giant grid contained 50 billion points that mimicked how water would flow there.

The digital model was created from photographs. It’s so inaccessible and rare that it would be almost impossible to test real samples.

Deep sea sponge simulation

After simulating the unique structure of the sponge, the team simplified it to see how a less evolved species might survive the current.

“It has incredible adaptations that allow it to live where no other animal lives,” says Giovanni. “We tried to remove the levels of complexity. We saw why this animal needed such a beautiful structure.”

Part of the stability of the sponge is its ability to go with the flow, literally. Although it is firmly anchored to the seabed, the flow of fluid in and out of its body reduces drag and minimizes damage.

The deep sea sponge, a mechanical wonder of nature

The first sponge sketch, of HMS Challenger in 1876, and Giovanni’s modern flow simulations. Credit: NATURE | Falucci et al.

“The deep water is very fast, so this serves to reduce the impact,” explains Giovanni.

The sponge spirals have nice gaps, spaces that reduce drag and collect water to feed the sponge.

“They look like decorations around the surface. Our simplification removed these gaps and found that the benefits of the structure were lost.”

Inspiration for future innovation?

So, could understanding the mechanical wonder of this sleek yet sturdy deepwater sponge inspire future feats of engineering?

The researchers say their findings could have implications for more advanced designs of buildings, bridges and airplanes, especially those that must withstand the pressure of air and water.

This places deep-sea sponges at the intersection of fluid mechanics, organism biology, and functional ecology.


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This article first appeared on Particle, a science news website based in Scitech, Perth, Australia. Read the original article.

Quote: Deep Sea Sponge, A Mechanical Wonder of Nature (2021, November 5) retrieved November 6, 2021 from https://phys.org/news/2021-11-deep-sea-sponge-mechanical-marvel-nature. html

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