PAGE 1 OF 2
An Absorbing Mascot
by Lindsay Moran
SpongeBob's popularity aside, April and Malcolm Hill say that sponges are attracting attention as a potential source of anti-cancer drugs, for clues they offer on human evolution, and for the roles they play in the ecology of marine systems.
Some biologists might be taking cartoon characters a little too seriously. For instance, SpongeBob SquarePants took the heat, at a recent international meeting, for misinforming people about marine sponges. Yet, at least one biologist team, at the University of Richmond, appreciates the gap-toothed creature and uses it to their advantage.
Malcolm Hill and his wife and colleague April Hill, both HHMI undergraduate program grantees, rely on marine sponges as a research tool. They view the friendly sponge who lives in a pineapple under the sea as a harmless, if far-fetched, representation that helps engage students.
“Before SpongeBob became a cult classic, the character was a favorite among our students,” says April Hill, a developmental geneticist who studies sponges to understand what DNA humans have in common with these primitive animals.
“Certainly, they've taken artistic license,” says Malcolm Hill of the cartoon's creators. In fact, SpongeBob is the brainchild of a former marine biologist, whose production company is aptly incorporated as United Plankton Pictures. If you watch enough of the Nickelodeon cartoon—which the Hills, parents of three, admit they have—you can detect references to marine biology. Still, April Hill is quick to point out, “Unlike SpongeBob, real sponges don't have legs, eyes, or a nervous system.”
One question her current research seeks to answer has to do with a set of genes—present in humans, mice, and even fruit flies—that leads to eye formation. “Sponges also have a version of the gene,” she explains. “And yet they don't have eyes, which begs the question: what is the function of that gene in sponges?”
Photo: Double Image Studio