When a recent DNA study showed that cephalopods like octopus were a genetic outlier within the world’s animal kingdom, many were quick to joke about how the animals were alien from a biodiversity perspective – which they technically are.
It isn’t just their DNA or appearance that differentiates them for the rest. Their smarts and considerable brainpower have been widely recorded, with octopus known to open jars from the inside, able to camouflage themselves and even escape aquariums through narrow piping, but what exactly makes these squishy ocean-dwelling creatures so smart?
A new study published in the journal Cell shed some light on cephalopods but added more mystery to their already unusual background. The octopus, squids and cuttlefish of the world have been found to not abide by the normal rules of genetic information, with their RNA showing signs of extensive changes. From a genetic perspective, this is very unusual. Normally, DNA sequences into RNA, which in turn creates proteins, so for there to be any variation in RNA or proteins, it is due to a DNA change. Apparently the octopus didn’t get the memo.
This DNA flexibility gives cephalopods the ability to edit and recode their RNA without changing their own DNA. They can change their own genetic properties without completely changing their own physical properties. For example, the study showed that octopus in Antarctica edited their RNA to adapt their nerves to cold waters. Further studies showed that cephalopods were able to make tweaks down to neurological level, essentially, these animals are able to affect their nervous system and its’ responses.
However, not all cephalopods were shown to have the gene editing ability, with scientists pointing out that only the smartest had been proven to have it, that is, the octopus, squids and cuttlefish. This study has changed everything scientists thought they knew about DNA and RNA interactions within this species, and lends credence to their “alien” status amongst the animal kingdom. That being said the scientists weren’t ready to say that this ability to change its’ RNA was what led to its’ impressive intelligence.
But is there really no correlation between this unique ability and its’ smarts? Not necessarily, as co-author Eli Eisenberg explained to The Washington Post:
“(It offers) tantalizing hints toward the hypothesis that extensive recoding might have contributed to the exceptional intelligence. Of course, at this point it’s just an enticing idea to think about, and we would need much more evidence to say anything definitive in this direction.”