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Mice, rats and fruit flies are familiar sights in biology labs. They're easy to study. But what about the octopus or squid? NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce has more.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: At the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., there's a room filled with burbling aquariums. A lot of them have lids weighed down with big rocks.
BRET GRASSE: Octopuses are notorious for being able to kind of escape out of their enclosures.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Bret Grasse runs this lab. His official title is manager of cephalopod operations - cephalopods being squid, cuttlefish and octopuses.
GRASSE: We do a census every week. And right now we have roughly around 3,000 cephalopods under our care.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: You can hardly see any. They like to hide. Grasse opens up one plastic container and reaches into the water to pull out a small terracotta pot. Inside it is a California two-spot octopus.
GRASSE: She is right down in there. You can kind of see her eyeball checking us out.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: I can barely see her, yeah.
GRASSE: Yeah. And so basically, this is a - kind of a common den. Either they're going to find rocks or some sort of basically dark enclosure.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: This female is sitting on her eggs. She shoots water at us.
GRASSE: You see she's kind of trying to squirt some water here. She either thinks that I'm going to give some food, or she's just trying to say, you know, I'm sitting in here, taking care of my eggs. And, you know, come back another time.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Grasse is trying to find the best octopuses and squid to raise in captivity for science. His team is focusing on ones that are small, hardy and quick to reproduce. Grasse says this lab is unique.
GRASSE: It's the only place on the planet that you can go where we're culturing a number of these species through every life stage, through successive generations.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: With the goal of turning them into a research tool. The effort is only a couple of years old. It started after scientists published the first full genetic sequence of an octopus. Carrie Albertin was on that genetics team.
CARRIE ALBERTIN: Most of their genes have some similarity to genes that we have and other animals have. Their close relatives are clams and snails. But they seem just so otherworldly.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: They can change the color of their skin, regrow arms. They have huge eyes and really weird brains.
ALBERTIN: Cephalopods are this fantastic example of a completely independent evolution of large brains.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: She hands me a glass vial.
ALBERTIN: You might want to actually see what an octopus brain looks like.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Inside is a brain shaped almost like a triangle. There's a hole in the center.
ALBERTIN: That is where the esophagus goes.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: These brains are so different than ours. Studying them could help scientists see what's necessary and what's not for mental feats like solving puzzles. Knowing all the genes is a start. The next step is to tinker with those genes to see what happens. Josh Rosenthal works in another lab here. He says almost all of biology focuses on mice, fruit flies and certain fish and worms because researchers have figured out how they can be easily genetically altered.
JOSH ROSENTHAL: With these organisms, you could understand what genes did by manipulating them. And that really became an indispensable part of biology.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: All of this basic research has transformed how we study behavior, diseases, possible treatments. Still, he says, there's drawbacks to just focusing on a few creatures.
ROSENTHAL: We're really missing out on, I would say, the diversity of biology solutions to problems.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Has anyone ever made a genetically altered cephalopod?
ROSENTHAL: Arguably we have here over the last year. But no one has published this yet. And this is really work in progress.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He shows me photos of a normal Hawaiian bobtail squid and then a ghostly looking albino one. They created it here by disrupting a pigmentation gene. Research assistant Namrata Ahuja sits at a microscope, where she injects gene-editing material into tiny squid embryos over and over and over again.
NAMRATA AHUJA: You get embryos almost every day. And their clutch that they lay can vary anywhere from, like, 50 to, like, 200 eggs in one clutch. So if you get that many in one day for five days a week, that adds up.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: They've had to figure out the best needles to use, how to grow the newly hatched squid. This is all uncharted territory. As is the ethics.
ROSENTHAL: I think we're very, very concerned about the ethics surrounding these creatures, particularly from the standpoint that it isn't being regulated on a federal level.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Rosenthal explains that in the U.S., animal welfare rules don't apply to animals without backbones. Still, researchers here have spent a lot of time thinking about humane treatment.
ROSENTHAL: We've sort of pioneered efforts to figure out what anesthesias are useful for cephalopods.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: They also work to make sure living conditions are stress-free. He says all this is important because octopuses and squid may lack backbones, but they're not at all primitive. This is exactly why scientists want to study them. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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