The squid’s superpower: changing its genetic code

21-05-2020
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New scientific study reveals that squid neurons have the ability to edit molecules that transmit the genetic code outside the cell nucleus.

Cephalopods belong to the mollusc race which includes 700 species including octopus, squid, cuttlefish and nautilus. They are extraordinary animals  capable of amazing strategies. For example, they can go unnoticed by changing colors. They can also expel ink in order to disorient their predators.

In addition to these fascinating features, many of them can shine in the abyssal darkness  of the ocean. Or, in the case of the octopus, contort by adopting improbable forms.

What enables them to exercise such functions?

The answer is in three words: neural control. For example, the color change is carried out by the pigment cells located in the mantle. These cells have pigments that expand or condense at will through muscle contraction controlled by the nervous system .

On the other hand, the rapid escapes that characterize these animals are possible thanks to their jet propulsion mechanism . This is made possible by the system of giant motor nerve fibers that control the powerful contractions of the mantle muscles. This strong musculature allows the expulsion by pressure of water from the pallial cavity.

Un calamar qui change de couleur

Squid neurons as an object of study

No wonder  cephalopods are being studied by neurologists around the world. They actually detected in the octopus an impressive muscular control which allows him, for example, to hide in spaces 10 times smaller than his body.

In squid, scientists have discovered the ability to edit the genetic code. Not only in the nucleus of its neurons, but also in the axon. It should then be emphasized that the axons are the long, fine projections that transmit signals to other neurons. This study was carried out on the long-finned squid ( Doryteuthis pealeii ). It is the first report indicating that  the genetic information can be changed outside the nucleus of the animal cell.

Un calamar blanc dans l'océan

Why is this feature important?

The first reason is that it  deepens our understanding of neural plasticity. This term refers to the ability of the nervous system to change its structure and functioning. This therefore allows rapid adaptation of the animal’s reaction to a changing environment. This process is vital for the survival of the animal .

Calamari are masters in the art of editing the genetic code. Already in 2015, the same group of researchers reported that calamari superlatively changes the information that travels in messenger RNA (mRNA). They estimated this process in higher calamari by several orders of magnitude compared to editing mRNA in humans.

The mRNA is a molecule vital  in the functioning of the cells of living beings. It transfers the genetic code of the cell’s nuclear DNA to the ribosomes, where proteins are made. MRNA is a translation of certain fragments of animal DNA that is “interpreted” by ribosomes. So the latter are able to rebuild proteins as required by the animal’s genetic code.

On the other hand, the editing function of mRNA “locally” opens the possibility, in theory, that  these neurons adjust the type of proteins to be produced. And therefore adapt to the specific and specific needs of the cell. Then, the use of this knowledge may help in the future in the treatment of axon dysfunctions, associated with many neurological disorders in humans.

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