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The octopus’ brain and the human brain share the same ‘jumping genes’

A new study has identified an important molecular analogy that could explain the remarkable intelligence of these invertebrates

The neural and cognitive complexity of the octopus could originate from a molecular analogy with the human brain, according to a new study. The research shows that the same ‘jumping genes’ are active both in the human brain and in the brain of two species, Octopus vulgaris, the common octopus, and Octopus bimaculoides, the Californian octopus.

The octopus is an exceptional organism with an extremely complex brain and cognitive abilities that are unique among invertebrates. So much so that in some ways it has more in common with vertebrates than with invertebrates.

The neural and cognitive complexity of these animals could originate from a molecular analogy with the human brain, as discovered by a research paper recently published in BMC Biology and coordinated by Remo Sanges from SISSA of Trieste and by Graziano Fiorito from Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn of Naples.


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The research shows that the same ‘jumping genes’ are active both in the human brain and in the brain of two species, Octopus vulgaris, the common octopus, and Octopus bimaculoides, the Californian octopus.

A discovery that could help us understand the secret of the intelligence of these fascinating organisms.

Sequencing the human genome revealed as early as 2001 that over 45% of it is composed by sequences called transposons, so-called ‘jumping genes’ that, through molecular copy-and-paste or cut-and-paste mechanisms, can ‘move’ from one point to another of an individual’s genome, shuffling or duplicating. In most cases, these mobile elements remain silent: they have no visible effects and have lost their ability to move.

Some are inactive because they have, over generations, accumulated mutations; others are intact, but blocked by cellular defense mechanisms. From an evolutionary point of view even these fragments and broken copies of transposons can still be useful, as ‘raw matter’ that evolution can sculpt.

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Among these mobile elements, the most relevant are those belonging to the so-called LINE (Long Interspersed Nuclear Elements) family, found in a hundred copies in the human genome and still potentially active. It has been traditionally though that LINEs’ activity was just a vestige of the past, a remnant of the evolutionary processes that involved these mobile elements, but in recent years new evidence emerged showing that their activity is finely regulated in the brain.


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There are many scientists who believe that LINE transposons are associated with cognitive abilities such as learning and memory: they are particularly active in the hippocampus, the most important structure of our brain for the neural control of learning processes.

The octopus’ genome, like ours, is rich in ‘jumping genes’, most of which are inactive. Focusing on the transposons still capable of copy-and-paste, the researchers identified an element of the LINE family in parts of the brain crucial for the cognitive abilities of these animals.

The discovery, the result of the collaboration between Scuola Internazionale Superiore di Studi Avanzati, Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn and Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia, was made possible thanks to next generation sequencing techniques, which were used to analyze the molecular composition of the genes active in the nervous system of the octopus.

“The discovery of an element of the LINE family, active in the brain of the two octopuses species, is very significant because it adds support to the idea that these elements have a specific function that goes beyond copy-and-paste,” explains Remo Sanges, director of the Computational Genomics laboratory at SISSA, who started working at this project when he was a researcher at Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn of Naples.

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The study, published in BMC Biology, was carried out by an international team with more than twenty researchers from all over the world.


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“I literally jumped on the chair when, under the microscope, I saw a very strong signal of activity of this element in the vertical lobe, the structure of the brain which in the octopus is the seat of learning and cognitive abilities, just like thehippocampus in humans,” tells Giovanna Ponte from Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn.


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According to Giuseppe Petrosino from Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn and Stefano Gustincich from Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia “This similarity between man and octopus that shows the activity of a LINE element in the seat of cognitive abilities could be explained as a fascinating example of convergent evolution, a phenomenon for which, in two genetically distant species, the same molecular process develops independently, in response to similar needs.”

“The brain of the octopus is functionally analogous in many of its characteristics to that of mammals,” says Graziano Fiorito, director of the Department of Biology and Evolution of Marine Organisms of the Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn. “For this reason, also, the identified LINE element represents a very interesting candidate to study to improve our knowledge on the evolution of intelligence.”

Story Source

Scuola Internazionale Superiore di Studi Avanzati

Journal Reference

Identification of LINE retrotransposons and long non-coding RNAs expressed in the octopus brain

Abstract

Background

Transposable elements (TEs) widely contribute to the evolution of genomes allowing genomic innovations, generating germinal and somatic heterogeneity, and giving birth to long non-coding RNAs (lncRNAs).


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These features have been associated to the evolution, functioning, and complexity of the nervous system at such a level that somatic retrotransposition of long interspersed element (LINE) L1 has been proposed to be associated to human cognition. Among invertebrates, octopuses are fascinating animals whose nervous system reaches a high level of complexity achieving sophisticated cognitive abilities.

The sequencing of the genome of the Octopus bimaculoides revealed a striking expansion of TEs which were proposed to have contributed to the evolution of its complex nervous system.

We recently found a similar expansion also in the genome of Octopus vulgaris. However, a specific search for the existence and the transcription of full-length transpositionally competent TEs has not been performed in this genus.

Results

Here, we report the identification of LINE elements competent for retrotransposition in Octopus vulgaris and Octopus bimaculoides and show evidence suggesting that they might be transcribed and determine germline and somatic polymorphisms especially in the brain.

Transcription and translation measured for one of these elements resulted in specific signals in neurons belonging to areas associated with behavioral plasticity.


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We also report the transcription of thousands of lncRNAs and the pervasive inclusion of TE fragments in the transcriptomes of both Octopus species, further testifying the crucial activity of TEs in the evolution of the octopus genomes.

Conclusions

The neural transcriptome of the octopus shows the transcription of thousands of putative lncRNAs and of a full-length LINE element belonging to the RTE class.

We speculate that a convergent evolutionary process involving retrotransposons activity in the brain has been important for the evolution of sophisticated cognitive abilities in this genus.

 

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