Octopus, squid, and cuttlefish are all cephalopods, marine invertebrate molluscs that are closely related to other ocean creatures, like sea slugs, snails, and oysters. Cephalopods have evolved a number of unique and highly sophisticated alien-like systems, including 1) adaptive skin color that allows them to communicate and rapidly camouflage themselves, 2) fast agile swimming by jet propulsion and fin flapping, and 3) flexible, stretchable, prehensile arms, tentacles, and suckers that interrogate and taste the world around them. The "world's smallest" cephalopod, the pygmy squid Idiosepius, is shown in the video below, and is an adult female less than two centimeteres in length, while adult males can be as small as half a centimeter. 

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Human vs Octopus


Humans and octopuses represent two major groups of animals, vertebrates and cephalopods. From simple beginnings, the two groups evolved independently into large, fast-moving, visual predators, think “fish” vs “nautilus”, around the same time in ancient Cambrian and later oceans. Facing similar pressures in their early evolution, the two groups engineered both novel and convergent structures and systems related to their top predator lifestyles. For instance, fish evolved swimming by body undulation (novel) and fins (convergent), while cephalopods evolved swimming by jet propulsion (novel) and fins (convergent). Similarly, both groups have a multi-chamber heart and high-pressure circulatory system that enables rapid movement of blood and oxygen to muscles. However, vertebrates have only a single heart, while cephalopods have three, one for the body and one for each of the two gills, which function like lungs in oxygenating the blood. Strikingly, both groups evolved image-forming camera-like eyes and a large, centralized, highly complex brain but the brain architecture in the two lineages is distinct. In humans and vertebrates, nearly all processing is done in the brain and to a lesser extent the spinal cord, while in octopus one third is in the brain while two thirds is in the arms. In a way, the octopus has a brain and eight spinal cords. 

Octopus bimaculoides


Octopus bimaculoides is a medium-sized octopus found in the Southern California to Northern Mexico region of the Pacific. To collect animals in the wild, clay pots are placed in mud flat areas that lack natural dens.  Octopus then move into the pots, and the pots with octopus are collected by divers and shipped by FedEx to the MBL. The species is exceptionally robust for laboratory culture, and multiple generations can be raised in lab. The O.bimaculoides genome was sequenced in 2015 to see how genes in octopus compare to those in human and other species, with the sequencing done by an international team that included MBL research fellows Eric Edsinger (of Project Octocam) and Carrie Albertin. MBL scientists are now developing genetic tools, like genome editing and optogenetics, in cephalopods to enable exploration and functional testing of the genome in the context of cephalopod biology, with the potential for novel avenues and applications in areas as diverse as synthetic biology, robotics, and even artificial intelligence. For Project Octocam, we engineered a system that allows us to monitor and analyze patterns of activity and behavior in O.bimaculoides juveniles, 24/7 for weeks to months, and are testing the possible role of the culturing environment on later behavior. 

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