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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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Courtesy of The National Aviary
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Animals
Watch This Live Stream to See Two Rare Penguin Chicks Hatch From Their Eggs
Courtesy of The National Aviary
Courtesy of The National Aviary

Bringing an African penguin chick into the world is an involved process, with both penguin parents taking turns incubating the egg. Now, over a month since they were laid, two penguin eggs at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania are ready to hatch. As Gizmodo reports, the baby birds will make their grand debut live for the world to see on the zoo's website.

The live stream follows couple Sidney and Bette in their nest, waiting for their young to emerge. The first egg was laid November 7 and is expected to hatch between December 14 and 18. The second, laid November 11, should hatch between December 18 and 22.

"We are thrilled to give the public this inside view of the arrival of these rare chicks," National Aviary executive director Cheryl Tracy said in a statement. "This is an important opportunity to raise awareness of a critically endangered species that is in rapid decline in the wild, and to learn about the work that the National Aviary is doing to care for and propagate African penguins."

African penguins are endangered, with less than 25,000 pairs left in the wild today. The National Aviary, the only independent indoor nonprofit aviary in the U.S., works to conserve threatened populations and raise awareness of them with bird breeding programs and educational campaigns.

After Sidney and Bette's new chicks are born, they will care for them in the nest for their first three weeks of life. The two penguins are parenting pros at this point: The monogamous couple has already hatched and raised three sets of chicks together.

[h/t Gizmodo]

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holidays
Bleat Along to Classic Holiday Tunes With This Goat Christmas Album
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Feeling a little Grinchy this month? The Sweden branch of ActionAid, an international charity dedicated to fighting global poverty, wants to goat—errr ... goad—you into the Christmas spirit with their animal-focused holiday album: All I Want for Christmas is a Goat.

Fittingly, it features the shriek-filled vocal stylings of a group of festive farm animals bleating out classics like “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The recording may sound like a silly novelty release, but there's a serious cause behind it: It’s intended to remind listeners how the animals benefit impoverished communities. Goats can live in arid nations that are too dry for farming, and they provide their owners with milk and wool. In fact, the only thing they can't seem to do is, well, sing. 

You can purchase All I Want for Christmas is a Goat on iTunes and Spotify, or listen to a few songs from its eight-track selection below.

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