Understanding the causes of major changes of form and function of organisms is one of the big goals of evolutionary biology. Dramatic phenotypic changes happen at the transition from the surface to a subterranean life. They involve the loss of eyes and skin pigmentation, and augmentation of non-visual sensory organs. In this project I will investigate the genetic mechanisms involved in this transition, using the olm (Proteus anguinus), the largest obligate cave inhabitant, as a model organism. The olm is famous for its peculiar appearance and as a European flagship species of conservation priority. Underscoring its importance, sir David Attenborough listed it as one of ten species he would take on his personal ark to save it from extinction. The olm represents a famous example of convergent evolution at the transition from surface to caves, as already noted by Charles Darwin in his 'On the origin of species'. My overarching goal is to elucidate the genomic mechanisms involved in this transition. The specific objectives of this project are to i) reconstruct the number of independent transitions from surface to caves across all olm lineages, ii) produce a full chromosome-level assembly of the olm's genome, iii) identify the genetic and selective mechanisms associated with this transition, and iv) reconstruct the demographic history of olm lineages. This research will be made possible by combining the expertise of world-leading institutions in cave biology (University of Ljubljana) and sequencing technology (BGI- Research). Using this expertise and knowledge, I will answer a long-lasting question about the evolutionary mechanisms that drive the loss of characters. In addition, my work will contribute to the largest genome assembled for any animal species. The identification of independent evolutionary lineages will help setting urgently needed international conservation priorities for olms.
Fields of science
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Funding SchemeMSCA-IF-GF - Global Fellowships