Nitrogen fixation in symbiotic marine sponges

Ecological significance and difficulties in detection

Clive R. Wilkinson*, Roger E. Summons, Elizabeth Evans

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

36 Citations (Scopus)


There has been considerable speculation, and some evidence, that coral reef sponges can fix atmospheric nitrogen through some of their microbial symbionts, particularly symbiotic cyanobacteria. Many Indo-Pacific coral reef sponges can satisfy much of their requirement for carbon energy compounds via translocation from photosynthetic symbionts, and a similar mechanism has been invoked to explain how some sponges could supplement the low amount of available nitrogen in clear tropical waters. Attempts to measure nitrogen fixation using the acetylene reduction test have proven technically difficult and given ambiguous results. However, fixation was demonstrated unambiguously with incorporation of the stable isotope 15N2 into the amino acids glutamine, glutamate and aspartate of Callyspongia muricina, although at relatively low rates. The variability in measuring acetylene reduction in 23 sponge species is attributed to several factors: the number of cellular and matrix barriers that must be passed by acetylene and ethylene; the difficulty of maintaining sponges alive under experimental conditions; possible metabolism of ethylene by symbiotic bacteria; and possible toxiciry of the reagents.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)667-673
Number of pages7
JournalMemoirs of the Queensland Museum
Issue number1-2
Publication statusPublished - 30 Jun 1999



  • Acetylene reduction activity
  • Callyspongia muricina
  • Coral reef sponges
  • Cyanobacteria
  • Nitrogen fixation
  • Porifera

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