Assessing the complex sponge microbiota: Core, variable and species-specific bacterial communities in marine sponges

Susanne Schmitt*, Peter Tsai, James Bell, Jane Fromont, Micha Ilan, Niels Lindquist, Thierry Perez, Allen Rodrigo, Peter J. Schupp, Jean Vacelet, Nicole Webster, Ute Hentschel, Michael W. Taylor

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

395 Scopus citations


Marine sponges are well known for their associations with highly diverse, yet very specific and often highly similar microbiota. The aim of this study was to identify potential bacterial sub-populations in relation to sponge phylogeny and sampling sites and to define the core bacterial community. 16S ribosomal RNA gene amplicon pyrosequencing was applied to 32 sponge species from eight locations around the world's oceans, thereby generating 2567 operational taxonomic units (OTUs at the 97% sequence similarity level) in total and up to 364 different OTUs per sponge species. The taxonomic richness detected in this study comprised 25 bacterial phyla with Proteobacteria, Chloroflexi and Poribacteria being most diverse in sponges. Among these phyla were nine candidate phyla, six of them found for the first time in sponges. Similarity comparison of bacterial communities revealed no correlation with host phylogeny but a tropical sub-population in that tropical sponges have more similar bacterial communities to each other than to subtropical sponges. A minimal core bacterial community consisting of very few OTUs (97%, 95% and 90%) was found. These microbes have a global distribution and are probably acquired via environmental transmission. In contrast, a large species-specific bacterial community was detected, which is represented by OTUs present in only a single sponge species. The species-specific bacterial community is probably mainly vertically transmitted. It is proposed that different sponges contain different bacterial species, however, these bacteria are still closely related to each other explaining the observed similarity of bacterial communities in sponges in this and previous studies. This global analysis represents the most comprehensive study of bacterial symbionts in sponges to date and provides novel insights into the complex structure of these unique associations.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)564-576
Number of pages13
JournalISME Journal
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2012


FundersFunder number
University of Wuerzburg
National Institutes of Health3609286, 3622989
National Institutes of Health
National Institute of General Medical SciencesS06GM044796
National Institute of General Medical Sciences
Deutsche ForschungsgemeinschaftSchm2559/1–1
Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft


    • 454-pyrosequencing
    • bacterial diversity
    • biogeography
    • candidate phyla
    • core microbiota
    • marine sponges


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