Glassy marine sponges have quite a “backbone.” According to a new study, one species’ intricate skeletal structure is impressively strong, outperforming comparable configurations humans use for lattice-style bridges.

Harvard University researchers hoping to build stronger and lighter structures looked for inspiration in the deep-water sponge Euplectella aspergillum, whose tubelike skeleton forms a square grid with diagonal reinforcements. They compared it with existing human-made lattice structures, such as those used in covered-bridge designs since the 1800s, stress-testing simulated objects and even crushing 3-D-printed miniature replicas of each of them—and the sponge structure came out on top. These results are perhaps not surprising, considering E. aspergillum’s millions of years of evolution, the researchers say. The new work was detailed in September in Nature Materials.

“In many fields, such as aerospace engineering, the strength-to-weight ratio of a structure is critically important,” said James Weaver, a co-author of the study and an engineer at Harvard, in a recent statement about the research. “This biologically-inspired geometry could provide a roadmap for designing lighter, stronger structures for a wide range of applications.”

Searching out resilient sponges and other natural architects could bridge the gap to making ever more impressive structures.

Science in Images is a new category of articles featuring photographs and videos from all the disciplines of science. Click on the button below to see the full collection.

Science in Images