More info about this fact

As recently as 2017 researchers discovered that some cephalopods (octopuses, squid, and cuttlefish) are able to edit their genetic information. Amazing right? It can be a bit confusing, so let’s try and break it down using an analogy.

Imagine you have a recipe for blueberry muffins, but you don’t feel like blueberry muffins, you want to make cranberry muffins instead. You follow the recipe but swap the blueberries for cranberries. At the end of the baking time, you take your perfectly baked cranberry muffins out of the oven. In this example the recipe is the DNA, you are the messenger RNA (shortened to mRNA) and can either follow the recipe exactly or tweak it, and the muffins are the proteins coded by the DNA.

While this type of editing does happen in humans, it only happens in around 3% of our genes, and usually it’s in parts of the gene that are cut out and discarded (called non-coding regions). Sticking with our muffin baking analogy it would be like seeing a note in the recipe that you should measure out all of your ingredients before you start baking and deciding to skip that step and just get them out as you need them. These changes to the recipe don’t affect the outcome, you still get blueberry muffins.

However, the changes in cephalopods happen in around 60% of their genes and do affect the outcome of the recipe. To reiterate, this editing happens very rarely in humans, and in part of the genetic code that don’t make a difference to the way our bodies work, whereas in cephalopods it happens frequently in parts of the genetic code that do affect the way their bodies function.

Being able to adapt quickly to changing conditions around them is an incredible advantage for these cephalopods. Researchers aren’t yet certain of why exactly an octopus would tweak its genetics but suggest it could well be in response to water temperature, making proteins that perform better for warmer or cooler conditions. This would be like using the blueberry muffin recipe to make strawberry muffins in Summer when the strawberries are ripe, or apple cinnamon ones for their Fall flavor in October.

These edits are ten time more likely to happen in the neurons of a cephalopod than in their other tissues. So, while there is still more research to be done to unravel this amazing discovery, the current theory is that this editing of genetic information is important for the functioning of their brains and is one of the reasons why octopuses are so intelligent.

To learn more about this amazing discovery you may like to read this article from the Atlantic.