DEC 27, 2022 10:00 AM PST

Octopuses shed light on the evolution of intelligent life

WRITTEN BY: Ryan Vingum

Octopuses are long known for being intelligent creatures. These flexible, eight-tentacled creatures, often demonstrate their intelligence through the creative use of tools, the ability to solve problems, and much, much more. But what exactly drives this intelligent behavior?

A team of researchers at Dartmouth College and the Max Delbrück Center have uncovered a possible reason octopuses are so smart: they may be the first known invertebrates to have high levels of microRNAs. But their findings go far beyond just the octopus itself, because these findings suggest that microRNAs may play a big role in the evolution of intelligent life overall. Researchers have published their findings in a recent article in Science Advances.  

First, what exactly are microRNAs? MicroRNAs have long been a mystery to scientists (often referred to genetic “dark matter,” a play on astronomical dark matter that is present, plays an important, yet largely unknown, role). Researchers know that microRNAs don’t actually produce any proteins, but they do play a role in how proteins express themselves. They also play a prominent role in helping develop specific cells with specific function, including cells that play a role in advanced cognition.

In their study, researchers studied the genes of two different octopus species. They found that overall, these octopus species had an increase in their levels of microRNAs, something that historically has only been seen in humans and other vertebrates. They noted that the development of advanced cells is key to the develop of new cognitive behaviors. The increasing presence of microRNAs in humans and mammals over time and the relatively low levels of microRNA levels in other organisms that have remained relatively unchanged for millions of years, for example, has been suggestive of microRNAs role in advanced cognition.

That octopuses are so smart AND the finding that octopuses have levels of microRNAs that are usually only seen at significant levels in intelligent creatures like humans and other mammals, is highly suggestive of microRNAs role in the development of intelligent life.

Sources: Eurekalert!; Science Advances

About the Author
Master's (MA/MS/Other)
Science writer and editor, with a focus on simplifying complex information about health, medicine, technology, and clinical drug development for a general audience.
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