SYDNEY - The humble sea sponge could potentially advance stem cell research, according to scientists.

Led by Bernie Degnan, professor at the University of Queensland (UQ), the research team found sponges had stem cells remarkably similar to those currently being tested for use in regenerative medicine in humans.

It turns out that sponges have features which we try to engineer, Degnan said.

Basically the reason people are attracted to embryonic stem cells is because they have the potential to give rise to a whole lot of other cell types and, using sponges, we’re trying to figure out how that actually happens at the most fundamental levels.

Making stem cells that can turn into any cell type in the body is like the Holy Grail in stem cell medicine. Sea sponges make stem cells with this capacity every day.

By identifying the similarities between sponge and human stem cells, the researchers may be able to reveal the most important features of stem cell function.

Degnan said because sponges and humans came from the same ancestor, any common features must have survived about 600 million years of evolution.

Any features that we find in sponges and in humans, we can infer they existed before sponges and humans went their separate ways on the tree of life, he said.

The fact that these common features exist in sponges and humans must tell us that they’re really important because these things split apart 600 million years ago and the features are still here.

“For example nearly 95 percent of all genes associated with human disease can be found in sponges, Degnan said.

He also added that influencing the direction of stem cell research was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to the abilities sea sponges possessed.