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Octopuses are among the weirdest animals on Earth. They can regrow lost arms, change the color of their skin. They can unleash a cloud of ink and zip away using jet propulsion, and they're smart. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports that scientists are starting to understand the secrets of their powers.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: As DNA sequencing technology has gotten faster and cheaper, scientists have unraveled the genes of all kinds of creatures, from humans to honeybees. But until now, no one had done the octopus.
CARRIE ALBERTIN: The octopus has a very large genome. It's nearly the size of the human genome, so this is - this is not trivial.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Carrie Albertin is a biologist at the University of Chicago. Her team collaborated with a group of researchers in Japan. And today, in the journal Nature, they report on the genetic code of the California two-spot octopus, a hearty creature that doesn't mind living in the lab.
ALBERTIN: They're not very large. They can squish down to about the size of a tennis ball.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And looking at their genes is starting to reveal some octopus secrets. Albertin says scientists thought the octopus genome got so big because the whole genome had just copied itself at some point - but no.
ALBERTIN: As we started to dig into the data, we were seeing more and more signs that there was no duplication.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: What they did see was a massive expansion in a family of genes that helped set up brain circuits, even though researchers previously thought these genes were only numerous in animals with backbones.
ALBERTIN: We were really surprised, as we were poking through the octopus genome, to see that there were just 150, 160 of these genes.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The researchers also examined a dozen octopus body parts to see what genes were turned on there. In the arms' suckers, they saw active genes that resemble ones normally involved in signaling between neurons.
ALBERTIN: So they might be doing something related to sucker function. For example, suckers are chemosensory, so they can taste. Maybe, possibly these are involved in that.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says all this is just the beginning. The goal is to take this genetic toolkit and figure out how it's used to make such a strange and novel creature. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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