Silica deposition is a fundamental process in sponges. Most sponges in the Classes Demospongiae and Hexactinellida secrete siliceous elements, which can subsequently fuse, interlock with each other, or form three-dimensional structures connected by spongin. The resulting skeletal frameworks allow sponges to grow upwards and facilitate water exchange with minimal metabolic cost. Several studies on sponge skeletogenesis have been published. We are beginning to understand the mechanisms of spicule secretion and the role of spicules and skeletal frameworks in the biology, ecology, and evolution of sponges. Molecular techniques and ecological experiments have demonstrated the genetic control of the process and the contribution of environmental factors to the expression of a sponge spicule, respectively. However, other classic topics such as the role of membranes in silicon transport or whether spicules are formed in situ or secreted anywhere in the sponge mesohyl and then transported to the skeletal framework require further investigation. We review the process of silica deposition in sponges at the molecular and cellular levels, as well as the biological and ecological functions of spicules and skeletons. The genetic control of spicule shapes makes them useful in the reconstruction of sponge phylogeny, although recent experiments have demonstrated the influence of environmental factors in modulating spicule size, shape, and the presence or absence of one or more spicule types. The implications of such variations in sponge taxonomy may be important. Besides supporting sponge cells, spicules can help larvae stay buoyant while in the plankton or reach the bottom at settlement, enhance reproduction success, or catch prey. Conversely, the role of spicules and skeletons in deterring predation has not been demonstrated. Knowledge of several aspects is still based on a single or a few species and extrapolations should be made only with caution. With the advent of new molecular techniques, new lines of research are presently open and active in this field.
Copyright 2003 Wiley-Liss, Inc.