Fall 2017

Minnesota: Land of the freshwater sponge?

Steven Gonzalez holds one of his research subjects. The University of Minnesota Crookston is conducting the first substantial study of freshwater sponges in the state in more than 40 years.
Photography by Terry Tollefson

It’s a little-known fact that Minnesota’s 11,000-plus lakes are home to a multitude of freshwater sponges. There’s also little known about these simple creatures and the role they play in our ecosystem. 

Researchers at the University of Minnesota Crookston are working to change that. They are engaged in a three-year study of freshwater sponges in Minnesota’s 10 major watersheds. 

Steven Gonzalez, a senior majoring in biology, health sciences, and environmental sciences, is a member of the scientific team. He is using DNA sequencing to identify different species and detect variations.  

Gonzalez, who wants to earn a doctorate in pathology or molecular biology, says he’s learned that freshwater sponges can serve as an early-warning system for poor water quality. 

“You don’t think of sponges as a contributor to the greater health of everyone, but even the smallest thing can affect the bigger picture,” he says.

Gonzalez says receiving the Morton Katz Scholarship and Andrew and Elmer Wardenberg Scholarship has helped him focus on his research and studies without having to worry about finances. “It helps motivate me, knowing that people believe in what I’m doing and aspire to be,” he says.