Octopuses And RNA Editing: Could Inky And Paul The Octopus Have Rewritten Their Own RNA?

It’s been almost a year since the story of Inky the Octopus making his daring escape from his aquarium went viral. And with a new study revealing the RNA editing capabilities of cephalopods, it’s interesting to ponder whether Inky and the World Cup “oracle” octopus, Paul, were among the best in their species when it comes to rewriting their RNA and becoming as smart as they appeared to be.

The Washington Post brought up Inky the Octopus in its story about RNA editing in cephalopods, and if you forgot the amazing story of this intrepid creature, it was told almost a year ago, at New Zealand’s National Aquarium. National Geographic wrote last year that Inky made his escape by squirming out of his tank, going down a drainpipe, and diving into the Pacific Ocean, swimming away to freedom. The escape, however, may have taken place about three months prior to the story breaking, leaving Inky’s handlers wondering how he had gotten away.

Commenting on Inky apparently being smarter than the average octopus, National Aquarium of New Zealand manager Rob Yarrell chalked it up to Inky’s curious nature.

“I don’t think he was unhappy with us, or lonely, as octopus are solitary creatures. But he is such a curious boy. He would want to know what’s happening on the outside. That’s just his personality.”

As the Washington Post wrote, Inky’s escape is far from the only example of the intelligence of octopuses compared to most other animals – they can mimic other animals by contorting their body, solve puzzles, and even unscrew glass jars. Like fellow cephalopods, such as squids and cuttlefish, octopuses make use of extensive RNA editing to generate several types of proteins from the same DNA. That makes them highly peculiar in the animal kingdom. But is that editing so sophisticated that it could give certain octopuses what many believe psychic power?

That leads us to the story of another smart octopus named Paul, who gained fame during the 2010 World Cup for his uncanny ability to predict the winners of the German national team’s matches. As it turned out, Paul the Octopus was able to successfully do this in six matches, and as the Guardian wrote in 2010, he was “predicting” Spain to defeat the Netherlands in the World Cup final, chasing after a mussel located in a box with the Spanish flag on it, while also forecasting a third-place win for Germany versus Uruguay. Paul was again right on those predictions, though he would meet his end just three months later, having died at two-and-a-half-years-old.

It’s still debatable as to whether Paul was really an “oracle” octopus or not. But he may have had been especially busy with his RNA editing, or recoding, as the authors of the new octopus study referred to it in a paper published Thursday in the journal Cell. Essentially, RNA is the “scribe” ensuring that copies of literature in a library are exact, verbatim duplicates of the original, but when it comes to octopuses, squids, and cuttlefish, it’s almost as if the scribe has been replaced by a chef.

That was the analogy used by the Washington Post, and commented on by study author Joshua Rosenthal of the Marine Biological Laboratory. As chefs may want to use an oven that heats up faster or make changes to their recipes, these quirks are akin to how octopuses and their relatives can adapt and adjust to various environments, and possibly learn new things and use their smarts better than other animals could. This was, quite interestingly, also the main takeaway from a 2012 study cited by Scientific American, suggesting octopuses use RNA editing to adapt to the warm waters of Puerto Rico.

While the study did not expressly state that recoding is what facilitates the unusual smarts in octopuses like Inky and Paul, study co-author Eli Eisenberg, an RNA editing specialist from Tel Aviv University, said that it offers “tantalizing hints” that could prove such a hypothesis right.

“Of course, at this point it’s just an enticing idea to think about, and we would need much more evidence to say anything definitive in this direction.”

In the future, Rosenthal hopes to use CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing to look into the nuances of RNA editing in cephalopods, specifically how they reduce DNA mutation rates through the recoding process.

[Featured Image by Olga Visavi/Shutterstock]