Untangling the Volcanic Earthworm Genome

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    About This Project
    We want to tell you an Azorean story that is over half a billion years old. The earthworm Pontoscolex corethrurus is an animal that has evolved to live in an extraordinary environment, a volcanic geothermal field in Sao Miguel Island, one of the nine Islands in Azores Archipelago. By sequencing Pontoscolex’s genome we aim to reveal how this remarkable animal is able to live in the most challenging environmental conditions, such as high temperatures, acid soils, and an incredible low oxygen level.

    What is the context of this research?
    Boiling hot springs and toxic metals – extreme volcanic environments come in all shapes and sizes but for a soil-dwelling animal the conditions associated with a geothermal field are as extreme as they come. Here, we propose to sequence the complete genome of an earthworm. The rhinodrilid Pontoscolex corethrurus, that has adapted to an environment associated with the active volcanic calderas at Furnas, São Miguel, the largest Island of the Azorean Archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

    The high abundance of the earthworm in Furnas indicates its remarkable tolerance to high soil temperature, exceptionally high carbon dioxide, and low oxygen levels, and elevated metal bioavailability, conditions that would be lethal for the majority of terrestrial animals.

    What is the significance of this project?
    The genetic mechanisms by which animals cope (or not cope) with the environment within they live, encompasses some of the most fundamental processes of evolution. This genome will provide a unique opportunity to study some of these mechanisms under an extreme volcanic environment. Our study will focus on the genetic basis for biochemical, cellular and physiological modifications employed to live in such stressful environment.

    From our previous studies, we found evidence that the worms may be swapping genes with other organisms (known as horizontal gene transfer (HGT)). Such genes may confer advantageous functions. A high-quality genome will confirm (or not) presence and nature of HGT, and better understand a phenomenon that remains unclear in the evolution of multicellular eukaryotes.

    What are the goals of the project?
    The primary goal will be to completely assemble the genome of the volcanic earthworm Pontoscolex corethrurus, using the latest genome sequencing technology. We want to produce a high-quality reference genome that is contiguous enough to enable the study of genetic rearrangements and horizontal gene transfers. This process will be integrated with data that we generated over the last three years.

    The genome of Pontoscolex is “unusual” (inherent genetic diversity and large repeat elements), making it difficult to study. Moreover, the unusual structure of this animal’s genome may be the key to its survival. The sequencing we want to use produce highly accurate long reads, which allow us to overcome the sequencing challenges, and investigate the unusual nature of the Pontoscolex genome.



    The sequencing of the genome will start by the end of summer and any developments will be continuously updated on the project webpage.

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