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The brains of octopuses are strikingly similar to those of humans

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Octopuses and their cephalopod relatives are very intelligent: biologists are studying the animals’ brains to find out what makes their organs complex

One of the animals that most intrigues science for his complexity and intelligence is the octopus🇧🇷 A team of scientists has now found a new link between our brain and that of curious cephalopods. It’s quite a large amount of microRNAs in brain tissue, which is actually very unusual among invertebrates, making the species unique in the seas.

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octopuses and squid they are very intelligent animals, the latter have been shown to have brains as complex as those of dogs, and we have already found some evidence that octopuses can dream, which is almost non-existent in invertebrates. Their nervous system is quite unusual, with much of the 500 million neurons scattered throughout the tentacles (hence the class name: cephalopod means “head” or “brain” in “feet”).

Octopuses, squid, and cephalopods in general are highly intelligent—we're slowly figuring out how their brains work (Image: DegrooteStock/Envato)

Each tentacle can make decisions on its own and even react to stimuli even after being detached from the body. The complexity of the system has long baffled scientists. Among the mysteries is the ability of animals to modify RNA at will to adapt to their environment. Normally this would start with DNA, but cephalopods rule out that intermediary. What is different, then, about animal RNA? This is what biologists have been trying to find out in this research.

RNA, microRNA and intelligence

Eighteen samples of deceased cephalopods were collected, obtained from the Italian marine research institute Anton Dohrn Zoological Station: among the species, there were common octopuses (vulgar octopus), Californian octopus (Bimaculoid octopus) and Hawaiian dwarf squid (Euprymna scolopes🇧🇷 Animal RNA has been sequenced, giving us the opportunity to study messenger RNAs and microRNAs involved in their genetic activities.

Tests have shown that octopuses have an unexpectedly large amount of microRNAs, or miRNAs: There are 164 of these genes grouped into 138 RNA families in the common octopus and 162 of the same 138 families in the California octopus. Of these, 42 were new families, mainly in brain and neuronal tissue. MiRNA molecules are non-coding, meaning they don’t convert into proteins and work in gene expression by binding to larger RNA molecules to help refine the proteins they create.

The high concentration of miRNAs in cephalopod brains, similar to vertebrates, may be the secret to the animals' neuronal complexity (Image: ktsimage/Envato)

The large presence of molecules in animals suggests that they play an important role in cephalopod biology, although we don’t know exactly what it is. This expansion of miRNA families is the third largest in the entire animal kingdom: oysters, which are also molluscs, have acquired only 5 new families from their common ancestor with octopuses, while octopuses have acquired 90.

Such expansions have only been observed in vertebrates, albeit at different scales. There are about 2,600 mature miRNAs in the human genome: in octopuses the numbers are similar to those in chickens and frogs. This suggests that the animals’ complex intelligence could be related to this miRNA expansion.

In addition to this resemblance to us, the octopus brains they also have many transposons, or “jumping genes,” that enter the DNA from anywhere. The next step for biologists is to study the role of microRNA in cephalopods, which could already mean specialized neuronal functions required for the development of complex brains in animals.

Source: Smithsonian magazine🇧🇷 The progress of science

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