The aquatic wildlife holds many secrets and the marine biologists are at the onset of making small but significant discoveries that may some day, elighten other paths to a higher intelligence and a deeper understanding of the surrounding nature.
Even though oceanographical researchers are overwhelmed with the abundance of flora and fauna, a group of scientists had the inspiration to choose the cephalopods and try to break down their DNA code.
The octopus, the squid and the cuttlefish are encompassed in the coleoid sub-class of the molluscs, characterized by a wide behavioural range and astonishing morphological wrinkles: camera-like eyes, extremely flexible body and the most impressive chameleonic response. All these features are packed with the largest nervous system found so far among the invertebrates, making the octopuses the champions of the obscure aquatic universe.
One of the main reasons that determined the team of scientists to investigate the molecular base of the cephalopod brain was its ability to immediately adapt the neural network properties which greatly impact the memory and learning capacity. These capabilities can offer an explanation within the genome that incorporates biological mechanisms that allow tissues to rapidly alter proteins in order to change their function.
Along with the development of marine biology and modern day genetics, there have been identified hundreds of cephalopod-specific genes, some of which displayed advanced expression level in complex organic structures as the skin, the suckers and the nervous system.
For those unfamiliar with the notion of genome, you can think of it as an organism’s complete set of genetic instructions that envelops all the genetic information needed to build, grow and evolve that specific organism.
However, the Octopus Genome Project is at an early stage, the most important achievement is the finding of evidence for large-scale genomic rearrangements, which translated for the non-scientist, means that the octopuses are able to remodel their own DNA, resulting in a flawless versatility in any environment, which was a decisive and crucial ability for the cephalopods in the race for survival of the fittest.
The octopus has an impressive genome structure, almost as large as a human but with many more protein-coding genes, about 33000, compared to our’s 25000 (some sources say that we might have even less than calculated initially, only 14000). Add 168 neuron development regulating genes (almost twice as many as any mammal) and you get an embodiment of intelligence that swims gracefuly among the lesser creatures that roam the oceans. The neural network consists of half a billion neurons, from which two-thirds spread out from the head to the prehensile arms, without the need of spinal cords, like we see in the vertebrates.
One of the most fascinating aspects regarding the nervous system is that if an arm is dismembered, it can still execute cognitive tasks, as if it would develop a self-dependent nervous system in each arm. This unique feature has given us an example of ultimate biological engineering.
To clear out the mystery behind its rapid chamelonic behavior, the scientists have identified six protein genes called “reflectins” which influence the way light reflects from the octopus’s skin, displaying various textures, pattern or brightness.
The discoveries belong to researchers of the University of Chicago who carried out the Octopus Genome Project with a member of the California two-spot octopus for initial analysis. In the same period, a similar project took place in Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology in Japan, both research groups aiming for breaking down the genome. Luckily, the two teams joined their knowledge pool for a mutual support in the research that focused on the DNA structure of the cephalopods that revolved around the sequence of the first genome, revealing astonishing results.
The scientific report that concluded the octopuses share alien genes have been somewhat groundshaking in the scientific world which caused an upheaval among the marine biologists who were shocked and intrigued at the same time, at the fact that apparently we’ve had under our very own nose the whole time, a link to humanity’s greatest mysteries in the field of science.
Octopuses are aliens, or at least their genetic baggage is. This headline is not something you see everyday in the world of science. After the release to publicity of such statements, the media created a hype around the subject that required a thorough clarification, on a deeper level, in order to eliminate any confusion.