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Octopuses & Big Brains and Unique Behavior Track Basic Research: Shots



A Californian two-point octopus sticks an arm with a suction cup out of its cavity. In 2015, this was the first octopus whose complete genetic sequence was published.

Courtesy of Michael LaBarbera


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Courtesy of Michael LaBarbera

A Californian two-point octopus sticks an arm with a suction cup out of its cavity. In 2015, this was the first octopus whose complete genetic sequence was published.

Courtesy of Michael LaBarbera

The Marine Biology Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts has a room filled with rippling aquariums. Many of them have lids that are weighted with large stones.

"Octopuses are notorious for escaping from their enclosures," says Bret Grasse, whose official title at MBL is "Cuttlefish Operations Manager." – Cephalopods are squid, cuttlefish and cuttlefish.

He's part of a team trying to find the best ways to educate these marine animals in captivity so that scientists can study their genes and discover the secrets of their strange, almost alien animals.

For decades, much of basic research in biology has focused on a few, well-studied model organisms such as mice, fruit flies, worms, and zebrafish.

That's because these creatures are easy to keep in nature. Laboratories and scientists have discovered how to routinely manipulate their genes, leading to insights into behavior, diseases, and potential treatments.

"With these organisms it was possible to understand what genes did by manipulating them," says Josh Rosenth al, another biologist at MBL. "And that really has become an indispensable part of biology."

But it also means that basic biology has ignored much of the animal kingdom, especially its more exotic inhabitants.

Let's say the variety of biological solutions to problems, "notes Rosenthal.

That's why he's part of the effort to harness cuttlefish and cuttlefish for study in the lab so that researchers can start using their sophisticated brain and unusual behaviors [19659016] A cuttlefish incubator from a soda bottle (left) at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts with embryos of extravagant squid, a particularly colorful species, and a close-up (right) showing extravagant squid embryos .

Courtesy of Tom Kleindinst / Marine Biological Laboratory


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Courtesy of Tom Kleindinst / Marine Biological Laboratory

A cephalopod incubator built from a soda bottle (left) at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Inside are embryos of extravagant squid, a particularly colorful species. A close-up (right) shows extravagant squid embryos .

Courtesy of Tom Kleindinst / Marine Biological Laboratory

But it's a challenging task. Almost all cuttlefish are not social – they attack each other – and must be kept in separate enclosures. In addition, cephalopods are very sensitive to the chemistry of the surrounding water. They also grow extremely fast, which means that they need a lot of live food to support this growth.

The MBL researchers have focused on species from around the world that are small, relatively robust, and fast to reproduce. The pygmy octopus, for example, only grows to the size of a grape and lays numerous clutches during its lifetime.

"It is the only place on the planet where you can go, where we cultivate a number of these species through each stage of life, through subsequent generations, with the goal of creating a genetically exploitable system," says Grasse. "We will continue to scale this program as more and more scientific communities are involved, and we've seen a great response in the two years we've been here."

"We run a census every week," he adds, "and we currently have about 3,000 cephalopods in our custody."

However, a visitor to the lab can hardly see any of the animals because they like each other hide. Grasse opens a plastic container and reaches into the water to extract a small terracotta pot. Inside lurks a Californian two-point octopus.

"It's down there – you can see your eyeball checking us out," Grasse explains, as the octopus sits in its dark enclosure on its eggs. She sprays some water on him.

Tanks moved to the Marine Biological Laboratory cephalopods.

Courtesy of Tom Kleindinst / Marine Biological Laboratory


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Courtesy of Tom Kleindinst / Marine Biological Laboratory

Tank for raising cephalopods in the Marine Biological Laboratory.

Courtesy of Tom Kleindinst / Marine Biological Laboratory

This species was the first octopus whose complete genetic sequence was published. This was a scientific achievement for researchers in 2015, which helped make cephalopods a new research tool.

I'm interested in how you make a weird animal, "says Carrie Albertin, who now works at MBL." Most of their genes are somewhat similar to the genes we and other animals have. Her close relatives are shells and snails. But they just seem to be so beyond the world. "

It notes that they are separated from us by hundreds of millions of years. Evolution

" Cephalopods are a fantastic example of a completely independent evolution of big brains " says Albertin, "You have these beautiful, fantastic, thoughtful brains."