With its eight prehensile arms lined with suckers, camera-like eyes, elaborate repertoire of camouflage tricks and spooky intelligence, the octopus is like no other creature on Earth.
Added to those distinctions is an unusually large genome, described in Nature on 12 August, that helps to explain how a mere mollusc evolved into an otherworldly being.
“It’s the first sequenced genome from something like an alien,” jokes neurobiologist Clifton Ragsdale of the University of Chicago in Illinois, who co-led the genetic analysis of the California two-spot octopus (Octopus bimaculoides).
Surprisingly, the octopus genome turned out to be almost as large as a human’s and to contain a greater number of protein-coding genes — some 33,000, compared with fewer than 25,000 in Homo sapiens.
Another discovery hinted at the basis of an octopus’s intelligence. The genome contains systems that can allow tissues to rapidly modify proteins to change their function. Electrophysiologists had predicted that this could explain how octopuses adapt their neural-network properties to enable such extraordinary learning and memory capabilities.
The octopus’s position in the Mollusca phylum illustrates evolution at its most spectacular, neurobiologist Benny Hochner at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem says. “Very simple molluscs like the clam — they just sit in the mud, filtering food. And then we have the magnificent octopus, which left its shell and developed the most-elaborate behaviours in water.”
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