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Our new editor… the octopus

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Octopuses are magnificent creatures. What with their instantaneous colour changing skin, their ability to see polarised light and having blue blood, it is no wonder they are the established aliens in our world. They have three hearts, can squeeze their large rubbery forms through the tiniest of spaces and have a venomous beak to protect themselves from the natives of this world. They can even solve puzzles, use tools and communicate with colour. One only has to think of Paul the Octopus (RIP) who was renowned for predicting the results of football matches, most notably the World Cup. It is already clear that octopuses are wonderful, yet our resident aliens have surprised scientists yet again.

They are part of the group known as cephalopods, and this branch of the animal kingdom does not obey the rules of DNA. Almost the rebels of the sea, cephalopods can interfere with the code as its being carried by the molecular messenger. They change their genetic instructions with a rare form of alteration known as RNA editing. RNA is a close cousin of DNA which is used to transfer instructions from genes to the protein making machinery in cells. The ability octopuses possess to interfere with the RNA causes diversification of the proteins that their cells can produce, which is highly unusual. Cephalopods are essentially editing their own brains in order to develop an organ that is incredibly complex. They possess thousands of RNA editing sites within their genes which enables them to complete such a task. But this extraordinary ability comes at a price. The access to large swathes of genetic information has meant that the cephalopod group have sacrificed evolution to some extent. Perhaps the current political climate has meant that they don’t want to hang around (*cue laughter*). To them, editing is more important and scientists are starting to believe that this could explain why octopuses especially have such a high intelligence and why they demonstrate complex behaviours.

they have three hearts, can squeeze their large forms through the tiniest of spaces and have a venomous beak

Joshua Rosenthal, a neurobiologist at the Marine Biological Laboratory and Eli Eisenberg at Tel Aviv University have led this discovery and have concluded that the practice of this gene alteration allows cephalopods to fine tune the information encoded by their genes without altering the actual gene itself. They use it to recode genes that are incredibly important to their nervous system. These genes as discussed by Rosenthal “make a nerve cell, a nerve cell”. They do this extensively, way more than any other group in the animal kingdom. Specifically, only the intelligent coleoid cephalopods such as octopuses, squid and cuttlefish do this. In fact, in other animals this occurs less than one per cent of the time. As previously mentioned, it is suspected that this ability in the cephalopod group because of their already highly developed brains. Kazuko Nishikura from the Wistar Institute who studies RNA editing in mice and humans has stated that he wonders “if it has to do with their extremely developed brains”. It’s impossible to say if RNA editing is responsible for their intellect but members of Rosenthal’s team such as Noa Liscovitch-Brauer are starting to think it is likely.

they possess thousands of RNA editing sites within their genes

Despite this wonderful discovery, the mechanics of cephalopod RNA editing are still be further investigated. Factors such as how this editing is controlled, how environmental factors such as temperature affect it and whether the process of memory is involved are all different directions which researchers may take in learning more about these fantastic almost extraterrestial beings. If only we could edit our brains for all those foreboding exams….

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