Molecular biology of demosponge axial filaments and their roles in biosilicification

Microsc Res Tech. 2003 Nov 1;62(4):356-67. doi: 10.1002/jemt.10401.


For hundreds of years, the skeletal elements of marine and freshwater sponges have intrigued investigators with a diverse array of remarkably complex morphologies. Early studies of demosponge monaxonal megascleres revealed the presence of a central organic axial filament running their entire length. Until recently, however, the precise function of these axial filaments was largely unknown. The spicules from the temperate Eastern Pacific demosponge, Tethya aurantia, comprise approximately 75% of the dry weight of this species, facilitating the large-scale isolation and purification of the biosilica-associated proteins. Silicateins, the most abundant proteins comprising the axial filaments of these spicules, prove to be members of a well-known superfamily of proteolytic and hydrolytic enzymes and can be easily collected after silica demineralization with hydrofluoric acid. Consistent with these findings, the intact filaments are more than simple, passive templates; in vitro, they actively catalyze and spatially direct the hydrolysis and polycondensation of silicon alkoxides to yield silica at neutral pH and low temperature. Catalytic activity also is exhibited by the monomeric subunits obtained by disaggregation of the protein filaments and those produced from recombinant DNA templates cloned in bacteria. These proteins also can be used to direct the polymerization of organosilicon polymers (silicones) from the corresponding organically functionalized silicon alkoxides. Based on these observations, the silicateins are currently being used as models for the design of biomimetic agents with unique catalytic and structure-directing properties. The presence of axial filaments in a diversity of spicule types and the evolutionary implications of these findings are also discussed.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Animals
  • Cathepsin L
  • Cathepsins / genetics
  • Cysteine Endopeptidases
  • Cytoskeleton / chemistry
  • Cytoskeleton / ultrastructure
  • Humans
  • Microscopy, Electron
  • Molecular Sequence Data
  • Porifera / physiology*
  • Porifera / ultrastructure*
  • Silicon Dioxide / chemistry*
  • Silicon Dioxide / metabolism*


  • silicatein alpha
  • Silicon Dioxide
  • Cathepsins
  • Cysteine Endopeptidases
  • CTSL protein, human
  • Cathepsin L