And it’s the last animal you’d want to have this ability.
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If you’ve heard about octopuses cleverly escaping their tanks, stealing cameras, and opening jars — from the inside — then you’ve also probably had nightmares about a cephalopod takeover. And as if the tentacled creatures weren’t unnerving enough, now it appears they can manipulate their own genetic information.
A study published in Cell this past April showed octopuses and their cephalopod cousins have the unique ability to alter their RNA, a key element of DNA, to better adapt to their environments. To briefly catch you up on Biology 101, DNA is the nucleic acid carrying all the information needed to build every aspect of your body. Though also a type of nucleic acid, RNA is more of a paperboy, carrying all the information in the DNA to the rest of the cytoplasm, allowing the genetic instructions to become reality.
However, according to Popular Science, certain bases (which bind and form certain proteins) can be swapped out with different bases to create different proteins. Eli Eisenberg, a co-author of the study and biophysicist at Tel Aviv University in Israel, told the outlet, “About 25 years ago, people identified the first example of RNA editing in mammals. There were a few cases where you'd see the DNA saying one thing and then see the actual protein was different.”
Even humans have been known to use this adaptive hack, albeit rarely. This likely has to do with the fact that there are only about 1,000 locations within human DNA that allow for RNA editing to take place and fewer than 50 spots where that editing would have any noticeable effect on human physiology. Squids, on the other hand, have roughly 11,000 genetic opportunities for RNA editing, despite having the same total number of genes as humans, Popular Science reports.
Using previous research as a platform, the authors of this most recent study took a deep dive into the editing capabilities of cephalopods and found the sea creatures use this advantage to adjust to temperature shifts and expand their brainpower. And unlike DNA adaptations, which become fixed over generations, RNA changes can alter an individual’s behavior several times within one lifetime. Put simply, don’t be surprised if an octopus outwits you — it’s in their genes.