Might Alien Life Evolve Like the Incredible Octopus?

Consider the octopus: a creature, researchers say, unlike anything here on Earth.

Consider the octopus: a creepy skeleton-less creature with limbs that have regenerative properties and a mind of their own. Its structure — inside and out — makes it like no other animal on earth.


As a part of the Mollusca phylum, the octopus seems so far removed from its clam cousin. Neurobiologist Benny Hochner, from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel, talked about this oddity in an interview with Alison Abbott from Nature:

“Very simple molluscs like the clam — they just sit in the mud, filtering food. And then we have the magnificent octopus, which left its shell and developed the most-elaborate behaviors in water.”

Scientists have marveled at the octopus for years, and now they've taken the time to delve deeper into its biology by decoding its genome. It sequencing reveals an evolutionary track so different from man. Neurobiologist Clifton Ragsdale, from the University of Chicago in Illinois, jokingly described it as something out of this world:

"The octopus appears so utterly different from all other animals, even ones it's related to, that the British zoologist Martin Wells famously called it an alien. In that sense, you could say our paper describes the first sequenced genome from an alien."

Researchers from the University of Chicago; the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Heidelberg in Germany; and the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology in Japan came together in this genome-wide analysis. Hochner expressed the importance of this genome project to Abbott:

“It’s important for us to know the genome, because it gives us insights into how the sophisticated cognitive skills of octopuses evolved.”

In their analysis, researchers found the octopus genome has a system, which allows it to change the function of certain proteins within its tissue. Abbott writes:

“Electrophysiologists had predicted that this could explain how octopuses adapt their neural-network properties to enable such extraordinary learning and memory capabilities.”

Its half a billion neurons, which spill out into its arms, connected without the use of long-range fibers, like the ones found in the spinal cords of invertebrates, allow the octopus' arms to “have a mind of their own.” Each one with the power to execute a cognitive task, even when dismembered from its body. This natural design has left many in the field of soft robotics envious of its neural network.

The folks over at Nature have given us a more personal look at an octopus named “Scootie,” who lives at the University of Chicago. The video shows the octopus displaying its powers as a master of deception with color-changing membranes and cognitive prowess to learn. Though, knowing that this little guy has the same cognitive abilities as my dog makes me think twice about ordering it again at the sushi restaurant.

Read more about this genome-sequencing project at Nature.

Photo Credit: AFP / Getty Staff

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Accretion disk surrounding a neutron star. Credit: NASA
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The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.

Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv

Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.

The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.

While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.

One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.

"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"

Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.

The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.

Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.


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One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.

The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.

Source: Wolovick et al.

An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.

But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.

Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.

"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.

"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."

A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.

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