Octopuses can edit their own genes, so the revolution is probably coming

Thanks, Evolution. They’ll take it from here

You may not know what coleoid cephalopods are, but you’ve definitely seen them in viral videos. They include octopuses, which can open jars from the inside; squids, which can communicate by changing color; and cuttlefish, whose camouflage skills are unparalleled. They’re the smartest invertebrates on Earth, and scientists may have just figured out why: They can actually edit their own genes.

In 2017, researchers reported in the journal Cell that octopuses, squids, and cuttlefish don’t follow their DNA’s commands like the rest of us mortals. Instead, they do what’s known as RNA editing. Here’s how it works: Usually, RNA acts as a sort of messenger and copyist for DNA — DNA hands over genetic information to the RNA, which it uses to help create particular proteins in cells. But in these animals, that information can be changed in translation. Enzymes can swap out certain nucleotides in the RNA’s code — you may know them as the letters A, U, G, and C — for others, thereby creating proteins that were never encoded in the DNA. As The New York Times puts it, this can allow an organism to “add new riffs to its base genetic blueprint.”

Scientists already knew this was happening — it even happens every so often with our own RNA — but the 2017 study was designed to figure out just how much these animals were using the technique. The answer? A lot. Consider this: Humans have 20,000 genes but only a few dozen places where RNA editing takes place. Squids also have 20,000 genes but have at least 11,000 active RNA editing sites. As Tel Aviv University biophysicist and study co-author Eli Eisenberg said in a press release, “With these cephalopods, this is not the exception. This is the rule. The rule is that most of the proteins are being edited.” Most of those edits happen in the animals’ nervous system, which suggests that it may contribute to their wicked smarts. Previous research pointed to the possibility that they used RNA editing to quickly adapt to changes in temperature.

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