Are alien invaders prowling the depths of our oceans? Eight-armed aliens with three hearts, movable eyes and an appetite for crab legs? Many are wondering following revelations from researchers who cracked the genetic code of the octopus (the California two-spot octopus to be exact).
Working under the auspices of the University of Chicago’s Octopus Genome Project, genetic scientists have uncovered startling facts about this mysterious ocean denizen. It turns out the DNA of this cephalopod species is labyrinthine and counterintuitive and hardly resembles anything else found on the planet.
Octopus DNA is comprised of genes that have been shuffled and rearranged in odd and unprecedented arrangements. It features thousands of “jumping genes” that hop around inside the genome like toddlers inside a bounce house, popping up here and there and everywhere as this highly intelligent creature adapts to its complex ocean environment.
In total octopus chromosomes were found to contain more than 33,000 protein-coding genes, a number that surpassed predictions by a goodly margin. To put this in perspective, human beings have just 19,000 of these genes, which illustrates just how complex –and strange – octopus DNA really is.
These findings were so bizarre that researchers felt motivated to use the dreaded ‘A’ word, which conventional scientists normally avoid like the plague. The late Dr. Martin Wells, a famed zoologist from Cambridge University in England who studied cephalopods for decades, used to refer to octopuses as “aliens” based on their unique physiological characteristics. Referencing Wells’ beliefs, Dr. Clifton Ragsdale, an associate with the Octopus Genome Project, claims his Project’s latest report “describes the first sequenced genome from an alien.”
Ragsdale’s comment may or may not have been made in jest. Nevertheless mainstream biologists and geneticists have rushed in to pooh-pooh the alien speculation, pointing out that octopuses have been around for 270 million years and have had plenty of time to diverge from typical evolutionary pathways.
But other species have been around as long or longer, and none come close to matching the octopus’s genetic variety and strangeness. And that raises an interesting possibility.
Even if the octopus is native to Earth, could its DNA have been tampered with by alien geneticists? Could that tampering be ongoing, and might it continue until they evolve legs and lungs and can escape the ocean depths to march across the landscape? Sporting massive super-brains that would dwarf the contents of our puny gray matter?
This is obviously speculative. But given the colossal mess we humans have made out of this world, I, for one, would welcome the arrival of our new octopus overlords. In fact the sooner they get here the better.