science 29.3.2018 17:42

Slovenian researchers move to better understand olms

Ljubljana, 29 March - Slovenian biologists have joined forces with Danish and Chinese counterparts to expand human knowledge on olm, a rare and mysterious species living in deep caves only in the Balkans. The researchers believe that the animal's genome sequence could provide some important findings that could benefit humankind.

Postojna
An olm in the world-famous Postojna Cave.
Photo: Postojnska jama

Dobrepolje, Kompolje.
An olm.
Photo: Tamino Petelinšek/STA

Slovenian scientists have been exploring the blind salamander popularly referred to in Slovenia as human fish for decades in a bid to better understand its ecology, life cycle and possible diseases to prevent it from dying out.

They believe that some of the findings could in the future benefit humans as well.

In order to survive in the extreme living conditions in caves, olms have developed several interesting features. Among other things, they can slow down their metabolism and survive without food for years, and live up to a hundred years.

Researchers are particularly intrigued by its ability to fully recover after injury and even restore missing body parts.

"The bio-informational answers we're hoping to get could on the one hand explain the olm's unique biological characteristics and on the other produce medically significant information about long life and regenerative capabilities," a leader of the Slovenian researchers, Nina Gunde-Cimerman, told the press on Thursday.

Researchers believe that the olm's genome could give answers to these questions. However, sequencing and mapping it is a challenge, because its sequence is much bigger than of any other known genome that has been fully investigated.

Since Slovenia does not have the technical capabilities required for such research, its scientists have teamed up with colleagues from China and Denmark.

The Slovenian biologists from the University of Ljubljana will be responsible for providing samples and biological explanation of data collected, the Chinese institute BGI will contribute technical capabilities and participate in data analyses, while the Danish Lars Bolund Institute of Regenerative Medicine will be in charge of the interpretation of data in the medical context.

Olms, also lovingly known as Slovenian dragons, can mainly be found in Slovenian caves, most notably in the world-famous Postojna Cave.

When an adult olm laid eggs in the cave's aquarium in 2016, scientists flocked to the site to witness the hatching of baby dragons, which had hitherto been observed only a few times given that the olm reproduces only about twice every decade.

Olm is protected with several national and international decrees in Slovenia and is considered a symbol of conservation of cave life.