Sunday, April 9, 2017

Octopuses Do Something Really Strange to Their Genes - It Might be Connected to their Extraordinary Intelligence

A team of scientists led by Joshua Rosenthal at the Marine Biological Laboratory and Eli Eisenberg at Tel Aviv University have shown that octopuses and their relatives—the cephalopods—practice a type of genetic alteration called RNA editing that’s very rare in the rest of the animal kingdom. They use it to fine-tune the information encoded by their genes without altering the genes themselves. And they do so extensively, to a far greater degree than any other animal group.

“They presented this work at a recent conference, and it was a big surprise to everyone,” says Kazuko Nishikura from the Wistar Institute. “I study RNA editing in mice and humans, where it’s very restricted. The situation is very different here. I wonder if it has to do with their extremely developed brains.”

It certainly seems that way. Rosenthal and Eisenberg found that RNA editing is especially rife in the neurons of cephalopods. They use it to re-code genes that are important for their nervous systems—the genes that, as Rosenthal says, “make a nerve cell a nerve cell.” And only the intelligent coleoid cephalopods—octopuses, squid, and cuttlefish—do so. The relatively dumber nautiluses do not. “Humans don’t have this. Monkeys don’t. Nothing has this except the coleoids,” says Rosenthal.

It’s impossible to say if their prolific use of RNA editing is responsible for their alien intellect, but “that would definitely be my guess,” says Noa Liscovitch-Brauer, a member of Rosenthal’s team who spearheaded the new study. “It makes for a very compelling hypothesis in my eyes.”


Rosenthal thinks that they pay for this sacrifice with a different kind of flexibility. By changing their RNA rather than their DNA, they might be more effective at adapting to challenges on the fly. From the same gene, they could produce proteins that, say, work better in hot temperatures or cold ones. And such changes would be temporary—the creatures could turn them on or off depending on the circumstance. Rosenthal wonders if they could learn or encode experiences in this way. “I’m working a lot on the squid ADAR enzymes and their distribution between cells,” he says. “It’s mind-blowing how variable they are. One neuron will have high levels but its neighbor will have nothing.”

“This study suggests that RNA editing and recoding is important in the function of the largest invertebrate brains,” says Carrie Albertin from the University of Chicago, who helped to sequence the first cephalopod genome. “By comparing vertebrate and cephalopod brains, we can understand how large nervous systems are put together.”

“It’s a really interesting phenomenon, but it’s unclear why they need so much RNA editing,” says Jianzhi Zhang from the University of Michigan. “It’s not absolutely clear if it has to do with behavior; humans have very complex brains and behaviors and in us, RNA editing is very rare.” The question isn’t just why coleoid cephalopods are unique in embracing RNA editing, but why nothing else has to the same extent.

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