Anshika Singh

Marine biologist and Scientist

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Anshika Singh is an experienced post-doctoral fellow under the DST-Women Scientists-A scheme at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), TIFR, Bengaluru, India under the mentorship of Prof. Shannon Olsson and Prof. Sudhir Krishna. She is a marine biologist by training who obtained her PhD from AcSIR, National Institute of Oceanography (NIO), Goa, India. She was awarded the gold medal for the best PhD thesis. She has a Bachelors and Masters degree in engineering in the field of biotechnology. During her Ph.D., she worked on the chemical ecology of inter-tidal marine sponges, addressing the questions of best harvest time for marine-derived bioactive compounds for bioprospecting. She explored the trade-offs among the sponges’ primary and secondary life-history functions. During her initial first year of bridging post-doctoral research at NCBS, she started marine sponge aquaculture and primmorph culture work where she tried to understand the immune system of the simplest sea animals – the marine sponges – using high-throughput omics research. At present, she is trying to study the impact of anthropogenic pollution (particularly microplastics) on marine sponges and explore the potential of using these sponges as bioindicators of environmental conditions of the reef. In parallel, she is also developing an interdisciplinary action-plan to utilize these marine sponges and their unique symbionts for the welfare of human beings. Her primary research interests are marine sponges and its microbial diversity, environmental genomics, marine chemical ecology and blue biotechnology.

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About the project: SPONGE WATCH PROGRAM for Microplastics Pollution

The wonderful world of marine sponges

Marine sponges belong to phylum ‘Porifera’ which means ‘pore-bearers’. They are generally known as sponges due to their soft, porous and squashy body. They look nothing like the famous cartoon character “Sponge Bob Square Pants”. Neither do they resemble the synthetic sponge which you might have seen in your kitchen or bathroom. Sponges are very diverse in their sizes, shapes, and colours. They are so colourful that you can probably complete a rainbow by putting different colours of sponges found naturally. While some sponges are quite bright, you also find sponges that are white or dull coloured. There are about 9000 species of sponges known worldwide and about 500 species are present in India alone. They are distributed widely, right from the deep oceans to the rocky intertidal zones, the frozen poles to the sun-baked tropics, from brackish waters to freshwater ponds, tanks, and rivers. Sponges are minimalists – they do not have any digestive, nervous, circulatory or excretory systems. They filter the surrounding seawater to obtain their nutrition. They are very efficient filter-feeders. They can filter more than twice of their body volume in a minute. They obtain their nutrition and oxygen by filtering a large amount of surrounding seawater. Marine sponges have been reported to thrive in areas with high anthropogenic pollution. Marine sponges are the good care-takers of our marine ecosystems as due to their simplest body structure, wide abundance, species richness, filter-feeding, and sessile (non-locomotory) lifestyle. They continuously pump a large amount of surrounding seawater and can concentrate a wide range of pollutants, right from heavy metals to organic pollutants. On top of this, they are extremely tolerant of these pollutants and have proper detoxification systems in place.

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Sample collection during research cruise using CTD

Our research focuses on understanding if these marine sponges can also filter microplastic particles from the surrounding environment. If they can filter out these tiny plastics, where do they store them inside their two-layered, tissue less, cellular body? Have they have developed any special cellular structures to accumulate the toxins from plastic additives?  Do they have any symbionts living inside them who can help to avoid the damaging effect of plastics and their additives? We are on a quest to find the answers to these interesting and very relevant questions to arrive at innovative measures for plastic waste management, marine pollution monitoring, marine ecosystems health management and sustainable utilization of marine resources. We aim to establish marine sponges as a suitable system to monitor environmental health such as microplastics pollution. It is important to identify monitoring parameters and to determine the most appropriate biological indicators for long-term microplastics monitoring. These parameters can be provided in the form of user-friendly kits to allow the public to take part in such environmental monitoring programs. Although marine sponges are doing their jobs very efficiently, it is the need of the hour not only to appreciate their role but also to take necessary steps for their conservation. A suitable science-citizen program will allow the public to take the responsibility, get connected to the marine world, and understand the concept of “ONE OCEAN -ONE HEALTH”. It is important to maintain our marine ecosystems to maintain our own existence on this blue planet.

If you are motivated by our work and want to contribute or work as a team, write to us at swap.microplastics@gmail.com.

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