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California octopus points eight tentacles at an intelligent Designer


California two-spot octopus Wikimedia Commons/Jerry Kirkhart

California octopus points eight tentacles at an intelligent Designer

Scientists sequencing the California two-spot octopus, a cephalopod mollusk, expected a genome closely related to other creatures in its Mollusca phylum, among them the giant squid, the cuttlefish, and the coiled shelled nautilus.

What they found was unlike any other creature on earth. Not exactly an alien, but certainly alien to standard expectations. And that posed a conundrum for evolutionary biologists hard-pressed to explain this amazing creature’s origins.

According to a recent article in the journal Nature, sequencing Octopus bimaculoides (two-spot octopus) revealed a genome nearly as large as a human’s, with 33,000 protein-coding genes, compared to fewer than 25,000 in humans. The octopus is by far the most intelligent among mollusks with a brain comparable to mammals but not confined to its head. Instead of a network of nerve fibers extending from its brain to its appendages, the octopus’ brain spills two-thirds of its half-billion neurons into its arms. This gives the tentacles independent computing power to perform complex tasks, even when dismembered. The octopus is the ultimate multi-tasker: Its eight prehensile arms are lined with suckers, camera-like eyes, and a toolbox of camouflage tricks to fool predators.

But it’s not what the octopus does, nor how it does it, that baffles evolutionists. They cannot figure out where in the evolutionary framework of random mutation and natural selection over billions of years this octopus acquired the genes to perform highly complex tasks like navigating mazes and opening jars of crabs.

“It is important for us to know the genome, because it gives us insights into how the sophisticated cognitive skills of octopuses evolved,” notes Benny Hochner at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who has studied octopus neurophysiology for 20 years.

The sequencing work, conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago, the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Heidelberg, Germany, and the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology in Japan, also included gene expression in 12 different types of cephalopod tissue in their investigation. One gene group, the protocadherins, regulate the development of neurons and how they interact. Another gene family gives the octopus the ability to taste through its suckers. Six genes for proteins, called reflectins, allow the octopus to change the way its skin reflects light, giving the appearance of a different color. Octopus tissues can rapidly modify proteins and change function, which allow them to adapt their neural network properties and enable their remarkable learning and memory abilities.

While researchers may genuflect at evolution’s altar in response to the marvels of the octopus, their explanations belie their faith as they try to figure out where all the genes, found nowhere else in the Mollusca phylum, came from. The two-spot octopus genome does bear resemblance to some vertebrate genomes, prompting speculation of “convergent evolution” of de novo genes. Simply put, genes with no evidence of how they arose appear ex nihilo in unrelated organisms and without common descent.

It’s either magic, or evidence an intelligent Designer reused His best designs. Could the octopus be something like a beta test?


Dick Peterson Dick is a World Journalism Institute graduate and a former WORLD correspondent.


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