ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Some of the weirdest creatures on the planet are cephalopods, animals like squids and octopuses. Now in the journal Current Biology, scientists say they've managed to tinker with the genes of a cephalopod in the lab. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports on why a gene-altered squid is such a big deal.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Bret Grasse's official job title is manager of cephalopod operations. When I recently visited the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., he showed me around a room full of burbling tanks.
BRET GRASSE: So we've got our beautiful, flamboyant cuttlefish. We've got our striped pyjama squids. These ones are native to Australia. We've got our Octopus chierchiae, which is the pygmy zebra octopus. They're native to Nicaragua - a very small octopus species that doesn't get much larger than a table grape.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The work here involves everything from the very latest high-tech gene-editing tools to a bucket of rocks sitting on the floor. The rocks are used to make habitats in the tanks and to weigh down the lids.
GRASSE: So, you know, octopuses are notorious for being able to kind of escape out of their enclosures.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: These critters have sophisticated brains that look nothing like our own. They can solve puzzles, change their skin color in a flash and travel using jet propulsion. Josh Rosenthal is a researcher at the Marine Biological Laboratory. He says these animals evolved completely independently from us. Their relatives are things like clams.
JOSH ROSENTHAL: And this provides an opportunity to compare them with us and see what elements are in common and what elements are unique.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The problem is there has been no way to modify their genes, and being able to do that is really important. Most lab biologists study just a few species, like mice and fruit flies, because the gene-editing technologies for them have been all worked out. This makes it easy to study a gene's role in behavior, disease and treatments. But none of that was available for cephalopods. So Rosenthal and his colleagues have been building those tools, first using a squid that lives in the waters around Woods Hole. A researcher named Karen Crawford had figured out how to fertilize its eggs in the lab. So the team did that and then injected gene-altering materials. It wasn't easy. The fertilized egg is surrounded by a tough, almost rubbery coating.
ROSENTHAL: For months, we would have needles break. We couldn't figure out how to get it.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: But they finally did it and turned off a pigmentation gene that normally makes small, dark spots on the squid's skin. Those spots are missing on the altered baby squid.
ROSENTHAL: Pigment genes are easy because you can see them, right? You can see if it's working as the things develop.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Carrie Albertin is a member of the research team. She says, for her, this is a game-changer.
CARRIE ALBERTIN: This is something that, honestly, if you asked me five years ago if we'd be able to do, I would have just giggled and said, I'd dream of it. But, you know, I didn't think it would be possible, and yet here we are.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Other squid biologists are equally thrilled. Sarah McAnulty is with the University of Connecticut. She says it's incredibly impressive that they've gotten this to work.
SARAH MCANULTY: This is, like, a huge advancement for cephalopod researchers all over the world. We should all be popping bottles of champagne. This is amazing.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says this particular squid can't live long term in a lab; it just gets too big. But she says it's proof of what's possible. And the researchers are already working with smaller creatures they have in those tanks to alter genes in them, too.
Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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