The Case of the Mysterious Octopus DNA

Sometimes, exciting scientific things sound lame, so an editor puts a fancy headline on the story to avoid having the average person say ‘MEH’ to a breakthrough. Such could be the case with octopus DNA, and a story titled: ‘Scientific Breakthrough: Octopus DNA is not from this world.’1 Were you skeptical of this headline? Was it because it sounded impossible, preposterous, almost as crazy as someone suggesting the earth is flat or red wine protects against heart disease?

I’m working on a process, a series of five questions, to get an un-hyped understanding of popular media stories on scientific topics. So, let me apply my questions to the octopus situation. By seeing the logic with the octopus DNA story, it may make my method easier to apply to less obvious situations, or situations where your intuition is saying ‘that’s wrong’ but you can’t put your finger on why.

Question 1. What do the numbers really mean?

More numbers might have helped this story. The premise is octopuses are alien and their DNA sequence supports it. How different is their DNA? That wasn’t discussed. But elements in the octopus DNA were found, such as genes, coding sequences, and transposable elements, commonly found in humans and other native earth species. Therefore, octopus DNA can’t be entirely alien.

The story states that Octopuses have 33,000 protein coding genes, far more than humans. Makes them sound more complex, more intelligent, doesn’t it? Until you see this chart2, that ranks number of genes per species and finds grapes ahead of humans. The story could have said that octopuses have more genes than grapes, but that doesn’t sound very special, does it?

2. Is the science in the story from a reliable source and quoted in context?

The original basis of the story was published in the journal Nature, a very reputable source, in Aug. 2015. It does not contain the word ‘alien’. The alien DNA story came along later, quoting a news release titled ‘Landmark sequencing of octopus genome shows basis for intelligence, camouflage’. Neither of these traits are uniquely alien – you can make your own bad pun about how alien intelligence seems in human society sometimes. Camouflage is pretty common in the animal kingdom, ask the spotted leopard lounging in the dappled shade.

How did the story get to be about aliens? A scientist is quoted, who quotes another scientist. The first scientist points out how unusual a the octopus body is. You don’t need a DNA sequence to discover that. All you have to do is observe the octopus and it’s ability to change skin colour with situation, escape predators in a cloud of ink, or unscrew a jar if it’s worth their while. The misrepresented comment is: “The late British zoologist Martin Wells said the octopus is an alien.”1 There have been others who call the octopus alien3, but I believe it’s metaphorical, rather than scientific, even if the quoted individuals were learned professors.

From an evolutionary perspective, octopuses ON EARTH split from the lineage that lead to humans about 500 million years ago. Whatever your definition of alien is, if a creature been somewhere for that long, I think it deserves to be called native.

3. Is the evidence proven or inferred?

The story bounces around through various biological terms, which are connected incorrectly. It states the octopus has ‘incredibly advanced biotechnology’. Biotechnology is not naturally occurring. Biotechnology is technology engineered to make industrial products in a lab based on biologics. No one, to the best of my knowledge, has seen octopuses directing lab operations. There’s mention of transposons, which the story says scientist don’t understand, a spring board to the conclusion that there is something really alien going on in the octopus nerve cells. Why the leap to nerve cells, when DNA specifies what goes on in all cells? Or the conclusion that because scientists don’t understand something, it’s alien. Scientists don’t understand lots of things, like Alzheimer’s disease, selfies, and reality TV, but that doesn’t make them alien.

4. Who has a stake in this?

The folks who posted this story have a long-standing, popular website that deals with spiritual and scientific matters. Perhaps their mission was to demonstrate how science could be taken out of context. Or what the word alien means to different people.

5. Why hasn’t someone done something about this?

Should octopuses be treated differently, now that we know their DNA sequence? I don’t see a reason that the eight-tentacled, water-dwelling creatures are different now that we know more about their biological blueprint.

It’d be easier to declare octopus DNA alien if we had some alien DNA to compare to. It’s not evidence of alienicity that all octopuses have a certain trait, like the ability to change the colour of their tentacles, when no other species on earth can. That means only octopuses can do it, not they are alien. With the same logic, we might conclude that humans are aliens, because we are the only earth species that buys lottery tickets, or wears sunscreen so we can withstand the blistering hot, burning sun, rather than lie in the shade like other sun-sensitive species.

A similar story, with an equally provocative title and equally modest explanation of what’s so exciting is ‘Orangutan DNA is full of surprises’4. Having read the report, I agree, but unless you are a geneticist, I’m not sure the findings will hold the same fascination. Sure, the study told us things we didn’t know before. Orangutans evolve more slowly than humans or chimpanzees (these three are closest evolutionary relatives to each other). This slow rate of change in orangutans could be related to how many transposable DNA elements they have. In the case of orangutans, their DNA contains fewer transposons, and they have evolved slower than humans or chimps. The octopus, on the other hand, has more transposable elements and is more adaptable to changes in its environment.

By the logic of the octopus story, orangutans are less alien that humans. I’ve never seen an orangutan buy a lottery ticket, or apply sunscreen, have you?

3 Such as ‘ “Meeting an octopus,” writes Godfrey-Smith, “is like meeting an intelligent alien.” ‘ from https://orionmagazine.org/article/deep-intellect/

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