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First Entire Octopus Genome Sequenced

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Solitary, shy, and incredibly intelligent, the octopus is one mysterious animal. But researchers trying to get at what makes the cephalopod tick now have another tool at their disposal: The entire octopus genome. 

An international team of biologists and geneticists reports that they have sequenced the first entire octopus genome. They published the genome of the California two-spot octopus this week in the journal Nature

Octopuses are particularly fascinating creatures to study at a genetic level because they’re so different from other animals—even from other cephalopods, a group that also includes squid and cuttlefish. They have no skeleton, three hearts, incredible camouflage skills, and tentacles that can regenerate. Moreover, those eight arms are home to most of their nearly half-billion neurons. That's five times as many neurons as a mouse has. An octopus is about as smart as a dog.

"The octopus appears so utterly different from all other animals, even ones it’s related to, that the British zoologist Martin Wells famously called it an alien,” as study co-author Clifton Ragsdale describes. "In that sense, you could say our paper describes the first sequenced genome from an alien."

Parts of the octopus taken for tissue analysis as part of the sequencing process. Image Credit: Albertin et al., Nature (2015)


The researchers identified hundreds of cephalopod-specific genes, many of which showed elevated expression levels in specialized structures such as its color-changing skin, strong suckers, and complex nervous system. The octopus genome also has several notable characteristics that distinguish it from other invertebrates, including much larger sets of two gene families involved in brain and neuronal development. Intriguingly, these larger sets were previously thought to be unique to vertebrates. 

In another surprise, the researchers discovered that the octopus's large genome size was not due to whole genome duplication events, which can be seen in the genomes of vertebrates including humans, according to a statement by the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology, one of the teams involved in the research. Such events create additional genetic material for evolution to work with.

However, the octopus genome shows no evidence of whole genome duplication in its evolutionary history, which is ancient. (Based on a "relaxed" molecular clock, which measures the number of mutations that accumulate in the gene sequences of different species over time, the researchers estimate octopus and squid lineages diverged about 270 million years ago.) 

Understanding the genetics behind the octopus's unique abilities may one day help bioengineers in their quest to improve octopus-inspired technology such as camouflage, robot arms, and suction cups. In the meantime, scientists will continue to study brainy octopuses like Scooty, a California two-spot octopus who lives at the University of Chicago, another institution involved in the study. An overview of the genome study—and adorable footage of Scooty—is in the video below.

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Animals
25 Shelter Dogs Who Made It Big
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If you’ve been thinking of adding a four-legged friend to your brood and are deciding whether a shelter dog is right for you, consider this: Some of history’s most amazing pooches—from four-legged movie stars to heroic rescue dogs—were found in animal shelters. In honor of Adopt-a-Shelter-Dog Month, here are 25 shelter dogs who made it big.

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This High-Tech Material Can Change Shape Like an Octopus
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Octopuses can do some pretty amazing things with their skin, like “see” light, resist the pull of their own sticky suction cups, and blend in seamlessly with their surroundings. That last part now has the U.S. Army interested, as Co.Design reports. The military branch’s research office has funded the development a new type of morphing material that works like an octopus’s dynamic skin.

The skin of an octopus is covered in small, muscular bumps called papillae that allow them to change textures in a fraction of a second. Using this mechanism, octopuses can mimic coral, rocks, and even other animals. The new government-funded research—conducted by scientists at Cornell University—produced a device that works using a similar principle.

“Technologies that use stretchable materials are increasingly important, yet we are unable to control how they stretch with much more sophistication than inflating balloons,” the scientists write in their study, recently published in the journal Science. “Nature, however, demonstrates remarkable control of stretchable surfaces.”

The membrane of the stretchy, silicone material lays flat most of the time, but when it’s inflated with air, it can morph to form almost any 3D shape. So far, the technology has been used to imitate rocks and plants.

You can see the synthetic skin transform from a two-dimensional pad to 3D models of objects in the video below:

It’s easy to see how this feature could be used in military gear. A soldier’s suit made from material like this could theoretically provide custom camouflage for any environment in an instant. Like a lot of military technology, it could also be useful in civilian life down the road. Co.Design writer Jesus Diaz brings up examples like buttons that appear on a car's dashboard only when you need them, or a mixing bowl that rises from the surface of the kitchen counter while you're cooking.

Even if we can mimic the camouflage capabilities of cephalopods, though, other impressive superpowers, like controlling thousands of powerful suction cups or squeezing through spaces the size of a cherry tomato, are still the sole domain of the octopus. For now.

[h/t Co.Design]

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