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Horizon 2020

Unique marine research programme funded

The University of Bergen will be coordinator for a research project mapping sponge grounds in the North Atlantic. The project, funded by Horizon 2020, is ground-breaking for the exploration of unknown deep sea habitats, with possible environmental and medicinal gains.

SPONGES WITH POTENTIAL: Sponge grounds in the deep ocean are vulnerable, but vital for the ocean’s circuits. This is a sponge ground 600 meters under the sea, near the Schultz  Massive, near Svalbard in the Norwegian part of the Arctic.
SPONGES WITH POTENTIAL: Sponge grounds in the deep ocean are vulnerable, but vital for the ocean’s circuits. This is a sponge ground 600 meters under the sea, near the Schultz Massive, near Svalbard in the Norwegian part of the Arctic.

The project SponGES: Deep-sea Sponge Grounds Ecosystems of the North Atlantic is supported for four years with a 10 million Euro grant via Horizon 2020 (H2020), the EU’s research and innovation programme. The project will be coordinated by the University of Bergen (UiB). 18 universities and institutions are partners (see FACTS).

“Sponge grounds are quite similar to coral reefs, in the sense that they are vulnerable and slow growing, and threatened by climate changes, industrial fishing, oil and gas,” says Hans Tore Rapp, professor at the Department of Biology, UiB.

 

UiB to be coordinator

Rapp will be the leader of the project, which will rely heavily on an interdisciplinary approach, involving researchers from marine biology, biosystematics, genomics, geobiology, and resource management.

“This is great news for our research environment. The project is a result of a commitment through many years on deep sea research at the Department of Biology and the Centre for Geobiology. It fits perfectly into UiB’s new strategy, which commits itself to marine research and climate research. We are establishing a national centre for deep sea research, and this is the best start we could wish for,” says Rapp.

The main objective of SponGES is to map and investigate the sponge ecosystems in the North Atlantic, creating a solid knowledge base to better preserve and sustainably use the vulnerable sponge ecosystems. Sponge grounds are one of the most diverse, ecologically and biologically important and vulnerable marine ecosystems of the deep sea.

 

Through the eye of the needle

H2020 is considered the biggest research programme in the world. Being in the world elite is a prerequisite for being sucessful in receiving funding from the programme.

H2020’s evaluation of SponGES describes the project as both ambitious and with great potential:

“The project will greatly improve upon the state-of-the art as it will increase the knowledge base of sponge grounds, their potential for technological applications and their consideration in management and conservation practices.”

“Hans Tore Rapp is part of the research environment at the Centre for Geobiology, one of our Centres of Excellence (SFF). The support from H2020 proves that this is one of the best research environments at the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences,” says Helge K. Dahle, the dean of the faculty.

He adds that the timing of the H2020 grant is perfect, considering that the SFF is in its final stages and has to be continued in other ways.

 

Marine sustainability

The objective of SponGES is to develop an integrated ecosystem based approach to preserve and sustainably use vulnerable sponge ecosystems of the North Atlantic. Achieving this will be done by strengthening the knowledge base, improving innovation, predicting changes, and providing decision support tools for management and sustainable use of marine resources. The sponge grounds throughout the entire North Atlantic are to be studied, from Portugal and Florida in the south, and northwards into the Arctic.

“First and foremost this is basic research. Our goal is to pinpoint what is needed to make these ecosystems function and thrive, and how to sustainably manage these,” says Rapp.

One other objective is unlocking the potential of sponge grounds for innovative drug discovery and tissue engineering. 

“For example, the sponges have extremely strong skeletal structures, which can be useful as scaffolds for reconstruction of bone. There is great potential for medical discoveries as part of the project,” says Rapp.

The project launches in early 2016, and the first research cruise is planned already for the summer of 2016.