To study the role of these synaptic genes in sponges, the Arendt lab established microfluidic and genomic technologies in the freshwater sponge Spongilla lacustris. Using these techniques, the scientists captured individual cells from several sponges inside microfluidic droplets and then profiled each cell’s genetic activity.

“We showed that certain cells in the sponge digestive chambers activate the synaptic genes. So even in a primitive animal lacking synapses, the synaptic genes are active in specific parts of its body,” said Jacob Musser, Research Scientist in the Arendt group and lead author on the study.

Sponges use their digestive chambers to filter out food from the water and interact with environmental microbes. To understand what the cells expressing synaptic genes do, the Arendt group joined forces with six EMBL teams as well as collaborators in Europe and worldwide.

Working with EMBL’s Electron Microscopy Core Facility, Yannick Schwab’s team and Thomas Schneider’s group operating synchrotron beamlines at EMBL Hamburg the researchers developed a new correlative imaging approach.

“By combining electron microscopy with X-ray imaging on a synchrotron beamline we were able to visualise the stunning behaviour of these cells,” Schwab explained.

The scientists captured three-dimensional snapshots of cells crawling throughout the digestive chamber to clear out bacterial invaders and send out long arms that enwrap the feeding apparatus of specific digestive cells. This behaviour creates an interface for targeted cell-cell communication, as it also happens across synapses between neuronal cells in our brains.

“Our results point to the cells regulating feeding and controlling the microbial environment as possible evolutionary precursors for the first animal brains. Truly food for thought,” Musser said.

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