Maybe you've heard about it, or maybe you haven't; but a number of scientific papers have been published asserting that the DNA of octopi is, reportedly, literally alien in origin. This would explain their extraordinary intelligence, including their alleged ability to perform eight tasks simultaneously. It would also explain the alleged claim that their genetic code is far more complex than other species on Earth — including us poor dumb humans. Octopi are super cool, there is no doubt of that; and they have abilities that we can't even imagine, what with their eight manipulators, their superior eyes, and their astonishing ability to change color almost instantly to blend in with their background, including details like textures and patterns. So what's the deal with this evidently science-based claim that they have alien DNA, and is it actually the scientific consensus?
(A note: The plural octopuses is considered more common and is preferred by dictionarial prescriptivists, certainly more so than the ever-popular alternative octopodes. My personal preference, however, is octopi, and this is my show, so that's what I'm going to say, because I like it and because I can. Octopi.)
As a sample of what the world press was trumpeting back in 2015, here's a snippet from an article on Yahoo:
Presumably they have to be from outer space, because their genetics are so wild and their abilities are so superhuman. Here are just a few of the things that octopi can do, that do indeed seem curiously consistent with a presumptive alien origin:
So even without studying its genes, you might well be forgiven for guessing that octopi must be literally extraterrestrial alien in origin.
Although the idea has been around for a while, there have been at least two scientific papers published in recent years that were most influential in furthering the idea found on today's Internet that octopi are not from Earth. The first of these papers was from 2015. It was a research letter in the top-ranked journal Nature — a very good sign — by Caroline Albertin and eight co-authors. Its appearance was broadly trumpeted in the world headlines. From Futurity:
From The Guardian:
From The Seattle Times:
And even from the American Association for the Advancement of Science:
Well obviously I had to get my hands on the original paper! Its title was "The octopus genome and the evolution of cephalopod neural and morphological novelties", and it was essentially an announcement of the complete genome sequencing of a particular species of cephalopod, the California two-spot octopus. Eager to get to the good part, I searched the text for the term alien. But — disappointment! The term does not appear. I tried panspermia. Nothing. Outer space. Nothing. Little green octopus. Nothing I searched for was in the paper. So I finally just read it, you know, like a novel concept.
To my relative surprise, there was nothing in the paper at all that could even be remotely interpreted that there's anything alien about the octopus or its genome. Nothing at all. Well, every urban legend has its genesis somewhere, and in this case, the world press corps got the idea that this paper said octopi are aliens. So I dug a little deeper to find out just when and where and how that got started.
As so often happens, when the paper was published, a press release was sent out at the same time. In the press release was a quote from one of the co-authors, Clifton Ragsdale, associate professor in Neurobiology and Organismal Biology and Anatomy at the University of Chicago. Ragsdale said:
Martin Wells was something of a beloved public science figure in the United Kingdom until his death in 2009, so we couldn't exactly go back and ask him what he meant. When The Guardian eulogized him upon his death, it gave a detailed summary of his illustrious career, including much of his prodigious work with cephalopods. No mention at all of them being aliens, but he was so fascinated by their extraordinary talents and weirdness that he may well have used the term metaphorically as a joke. Ragsdale, then, by quoting him, was merely passing along an insider's joke filled with admiration for these remarkable, marvelous creatures.
So everyone who passed along the idea that octopi are aliens based on the 2015 article ends up with a bit of egg on their face. What about the second article? It was much more on point. Titled "Cause of Cambrian Explosion - Terrestrial or Cosmic?" it was published in 2018 by Edward Steele and 32 co-authors in the journal Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology. This paper only mentions the octopus on a few of its 26 dense pages; it was mainly an argument for panspermia being responsible for all life on Earth. In such a world, the octopus — and all the rest of us as well — would arguably be the descendants of alien genetic material.
Panspermia is by no means a new concept. Ever since humans have wondered how life first arose on Earth, panspermia has been a reasonable option — if an unnecessary one. We know from the many Miller-Urey type experiments that have been performed that amino acids, the most basic building blocks of life, are virtually guaranteed to form naturally in the early stages of most any rocky exoplanet. The idea is you take a sample of that early atmosphere, spark it to simulate lightning, and dozens of amino acids are produced. Hit that planet with a few high-energy asteroids to send fragments into space, and now you've got amino acids traveling the cosmos. Some of these may well have landed on the early Earth, just as some similar fragments from Earth may well have landed (or will eventually land) on some distant exoplanet. The rest of it comes down to almost pure speculation. Were the building blocks of life already naturally blanketing the entire Earth when this hypothetical meteor brought a little bit more? — or was that little space seed truly unique when it crashed upon our surface and scattered its bits, to eventually spawn the uber-mega-menagerie of life of every imaginable kind that is the Earth?
Even the paper itself acknowledged that the very suggestion of panspermia was likely to produce eye rolling (using wording which I find more than a little condescending):
Bottom line, the paper promoted panspermia as the origin of life on Earth. Not just the octopus, but you and I as well. You can't have one without the other.
It turns out there's a great reason the octopus is indeed so smart, and it doesn't fit very well with the idea that it comes from outer space. If it did, the octopus wouldn't slot so nicely into the tree of life on Earth, which it does, and which holds the key to what's extraordinary about our eight-armed friends.
Octopi have the same basic gene families as most other animals on Earth. The difference is that two of them are greatly expanded relative to other creatures on the octopus's branch of the tree of life, and some of these gene families are usually only seen expanded in vertebrates. One of these gene groups is the protocadherins, which govern the development of neurons. All of these extra genes for neurons is why the octopus has such a huge brain, and it's not all in its head — two thirds of its brain is distributed out into its arms. So yes, this is very weird — weird enough for Wells and Ragsdale to have joked that it seems like an alien — but also very much a product of the building blocks of life on Earth.
And really, that's the point that we have to hit hardest. The oddities of the octopus genome are modifications that are deeply rooted in the genome of related species, all the way back to our mutual ancestor half a billion years ago. The octopus could not be the marvel that it is without its deep Earthling heritage — and we reserve the proviso that the absolute origin of that multi-billion-year heritage is consistent with several different seeds, only the most probable of which is our Earthly proto-atmosphere sparked with our Earthly lightning. Enjoy and be amazed at our fellow Earthling, the octopus, but do not be so quick to label it an alien, forever separated genetically from ourselves.
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