Could one of Earth’s most intelligent species be an alien, ‘seeded’ on the planet by an interstellar genetic code? Scientists speculate that the clue might be found in the ancient precursor to life, RNA.
There are award-winning books, documentaries and even science fiction about octopus, says Ezra Klein in his podcast for The New York Times. “I suspect it’s the same hunger that leaves many of us yearning to know aliens: How do radically different minds work? What is it like to be a truly different being living in a similar world? The flying objects above remain unidentified. But the incomprehensible objects below do not.”
In April, 2018, the peer-reviewed journal Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology published a remarkable scientific paper, Cause of the Cambrian Explosion – Terrestrial or Cosmic? With 33 authors from a wide range of universities and research institutes, the paper makes a seemingly incredible conjecture that if true, would have the most profound consequences for our understanding of the universe, namely that life, the paper argues, did not originate on the planet Earth.
The paper makes a long-debated conclusion – “that life may have been seeded here on Earth by life-bearing comets as soon as conditions on Earth allowed it to flourish (about or just before 4.1 Billion years ago); and living organisms such as space-resistant and space-hardy bacteria, viruses, more complex eukaryotic cells, fertilised ova and seeds have been continuously delivered ever since to Earth so being one important driver of further terrestrial evolution which has resulted in considerable genetic diversity and which has led to the emergence of mankind.”
A focus of the paper is the remarkable evolution of intelligent complexity (cephalopods) culminating in the emergence of the octopus.
The genome of the Octopus shows a staggering level of complexity with 33,000 protein-coding genes more than is present in Homo sapiens. Its large brain and sophisticated nervous system, camera-like eyes, flexible bodies, instantaneous camouflage via the ability to switch colour and shape are just a few of the striking features that appear suddenly on the evolutionary scene 270 million years ago. The transformative genes leading from the consensus ancestral nautilus to the common cuttlefish to squid to the common Octopus are not easily to be found in any pre-existing life form – it is plausible then to suggest they seem to be borrowed from a far distant “future” in terms of terrestrial evolution, or more realistically from the cosmos at large. Such an extraterrestrial origin as an explanation of emergence of course runs counter to the prevailing dominant paradigm.
Lack a fossil record to address how they evolved
“However,” wrote neurobiologist Clifton Ragsdale at the University of Chicago’s Marine Biological Institute in an email to The Daily Galaxy: “the octopus, along with the other extant soft-bodied cephalopods (squid, cuttlefish), are full of striking evolutionary innovations. It is unfortunate that, because they are soft-bodied, there is not much of a fossil record to address how they evolved. However, genome analysis clearly shows that the octopus and the other cephalopods all evolved from molluscan ancestors. There are no good reasons to think otherwise.”
Aliens of the Deep — “Evolution Built Minds Twice Over”
Like the basics of the human brain that first evolved in the sea, cephalopods – octopuses, squids and nautiluses – “are an island of mental complexity in the sea of invertebrate animals” having developed on a different path from us, “an independent experiment in the evolution of large brains and complex behavior,” says Peter Godfrey-Smith, philosopher of science at the University of Syndey and author of The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness.
“If we can make contact with cephalopods as sentient beings, it is not because of a shared history, not because of kinship, but because evolution built minds twice over,” adds Godfrey-Smith. “This is probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien.”
This is probably the closest we will come to meeting an intelligent alien
Shapeshifting octopuses are scary smart with the amazing power to edit their own bodies. Researchers found octopuses — and some of their cuttlefish and squid cousins — regularly edit their RNA, an advanced biological ability, they claim, that came from outer space.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the new paper concerns the origins of the octopus. The discussion begins, as it so often does in the paper, with some plausible evidence. Cephalopods (the group comprising squid, cuttlefish, nautilus and octopus) have a somewhat confusing evolutionary tree, first appearing in the late Cambrian period and seemingly descending from an ancestral primitive nautiloid.
Of these, the octopus is the most striking, with features, such as a complex nervous system, sophisticated eyes and a capacity for camouflage, that appear quite suddenly in its evolution. The genes necessary for this transformation, the authors suggest, are not present in its ancestry. Thus, they hold that “it is plausible then to suggest they seem to be borrowed from a far distant ‘future’ in terms of terrestrial evolution, or more realistically from the cosmos at large.”
Interestingly, the octopus has some real and pervasive biochemical differences from the nautilus, presumably the closest living relative of the former’s ancestor. In particular, there is evidence of extensive changes in the RNA, and thus proteins, found in the neural structures of cephalopods.
These changes have been preserved and are not found to this extent elsewhere in nature, not even in the nautilus. This indicates that a qualitative evolutionary transformation occurred relatively recently and abruptly in behaviorally complex cephalopods. The sheer scale of these changes leads the authors to conclude that it cannot be explained by normal Darwinian evolution.
“One plausible explanation, is’ the”alien-hypothesis” researchers argue, “in our view, is that the new genes are likely new extraterrestrial imports to Earth – most plausibly as an already coherent group of functioning genes within (say) cryopreserved and matrix protected fertilized octopus eggs,” write the authors. This would “be a parsimonious cosmic explanation for the octopus’ sudden emergence on Earth [about] 270 million years ago.”
The Cambrian Explosion was a period of time where life on Earth diversified dramatically, and rapidly, which took place shortly after the emergence of retroviruses in our environment. It was especially dramatic for a type of mollusc called a cephalopod. Tentacles reached out from their shells and wove their way into enormous variety of creatures which eventually became the octopus, cuttlefish and squid.
“We believe this coincidence is not fortuitous but is consistent with a key prediction … whereby major extinction-diversification evolutionary boundaries coincide with virus-bearing cometary-bolide bombardment events,” the study’s abstract reads.
This idea is that space-borne retroviruses eventually found their way to the Earth’s surface before attaching themselves to living organisms. Once there, they reprogrammed the creatures’ evolution.
“A second focus is the remarkable evolution of intelligent complexity (Cephalopods) culminating in the emergence of the Octopus,” the study reads.
“A third focus concerns the microorganism fossil evidence contained within meteorites as well as the detection in the upper atmosphere of apparent incoming life-bearing particles from space.”
The paper argues the space-based transfer of life was likely on a larger scale than just retroviruses. Whole sets of frozen genetic material were cast about on the stellar winds before reaching our tiny blue dot. “Thus the possibility that cryopreserved squid and/or octopus eggs, arrived in icy bolides several hundred million years ago should not be discounted,” the study reads.
RNA, like DNA, records genetic code. But where DNA is a double-stranded molecule, RNA consists of just one strand. Its role within our body is to transmit genetic information to trigger the production of proteins. But some scientists feel RNA may have been the original DNA, acting as the permanent storehouse of genetic code among Earth’s earliest organisms.
Researchers have found that when it comes to cephalopods like the common squid,up to 60 per cent of the RNA in its nervous system had been edited after it was programmed by DNA. These changes adapted its brain to shifting temperatures in its ocean habitat.
“This shows that high levels of RNA editing … (is) an invention of the coleoid cephalopods,” US Marine Biological Laboratory researcher Joshua Rosenthal said. The central dogma of biology, says Rosenthal, is that genetic information passes faithfully from DNA to RNA before being decoded into proteins. This information can be manipulated at any stage. When done in DNA, the changes are irreversible. Organisms often alter information in RNA because it provides a flexible platform.
Hypothesis Challenged –”From the Deep, not from Space”
“Octopuses have many peculiarities, but they are clearly within the molluscs, with clear relationships to other molluscs and to other invertebrate animals,” wrote Peter-Godfrey Smith in an email to The Daily Galaxy.
“The octopus-from-space paper cites a 2015 paper.” continues Smith citing his 2018 blog post, Octopuses Did Not Come From Space, “that reported the first sequencing of an octopus genome, by Caroline Albertin and coauthors. This 2015 study is used, along with others, to suggest that octopuses have genetic features that are so unusual that they support unorthodox ideas about their origin. But a look at the Albertin paper shows, instead, that octopuses sit very comfortably with their apparent animal relatives on Earth, rather than being additions from somewhere else.
“The basic ideas are simple,” stresses Smith. “Octopuses have fairly similar collections of genes to limpets (those flat shellfish that stick tightly to rocks), to a marine worm (annelids are the group that includes earthworms), and a lancelet (a silvery fish-like sliver of an animal that is a fair bit closer to us). Barring the most freakish improbabilities, there is no way an animal living on another world could end up with such a similar set of genes to animals here on Earth, such that when it came here frozen in a meteorite, it would have all sorts of apparent relatives among limpets and worms.”
No “indisputable proof”
Other acknowledged experts are unconvinced by the findings. Avi Loeb, the Frank B. Baird Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard University, told Newsweek the study raised “an interesting but controversial possibility, offering no “indisputable proof” that the Cambrian explosion is the result of panspermia.
Astrobiologist Frances Westall, who is involved in the European Space Agency’s Mars Express mission, was skeptical of the paper. For instance, some microbial cells and seeds, she told Newsweek, have been shown to survive in space for certain periods of time. But in the scenario offered in this paper, they would need to have survived in interstellar space for thousands of years.
Although the chemical building blocks for life may be cosmic, more experimental work on Earth, needs to be done to probe the origins of life on Earth, Westall said. “Unfortunately it is all too easy to pull information out of the literature to support one’s hypothesis,” she added. “Nature is incredible, and I do not think it is necessary to call on extraterrestrials to explain.
The key to unlocking evolutionary secrets about intelligence
Back on Earth, the octopus relative, cuttlefish –more closely related to insects than to humans– have three hearts, green blood and one of the largest brains among invertebrates,” said cephalopod guru, Bret Grasse. “And they can regenerate their limbs, they can camouflage. In a 2013 study, scientists asked: “Do cuttlefish have a sense of the future and the recent past? Can they make decisions about what they think is likely to happen in the future?” Cuttlefish may have an important role in illuminating how and when intelligence evolves, observes Veronique Greenwood for the New York Times in Did a Cuttlefish Write This? reports that octopuses and squid are full of cephalopod character, but more scientists are making the case that cuttlefish hold the key to unlocking evolutionary secrets about intelligence.
The Daily Galaxy, Avi Shporer, Research Scientist, MIT Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research via Science Direct, New york Times, US Marine Biological Laboratory, Peter Godfrey Smith. . Avi was formerly a NASA Sagan Fellow at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).
Image credit: Shutterstock
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