Did you hear the one about the octopuses from space?
It sounds like the title of a cheesy sci-fi movie, doesn’t it?
But it isn’t, this time, or at least, yet. Instead, it’s actually an oddball theory that’s been put forth in a recently published “scientific” article that’s getting quite a lot of buzz in the media lately.
First, let’s start with the particular article about octopuses that is causing all of the fuss.
It appeared in the journal Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology, and it was published with a list of an 33 co-authors.
Cause of Cambrian Explosion – Terrestrial or Cosmic? (Edward J.Steele, Et al., Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology)
One can’t help but wonder if there was a share the blame scenario going on. It’s not even the theory that is suspect. The problem is in the scientific aspects of the work. Even the sensationalist article in Newsweek politely described most responses from the scientific community as “critical.”
Are Octopuses From Outer Space? Study Suggests Cephalopod Eggs Traveled to Earth on a Comet (Katherine Hignett, Newsweek)
Here’s a GeoBeats segment that covers the article and also uses the word “critical” to describe the scientific responses.
Personally, I checked to see if the article was published on April 1st — that would’ve been a bit o’ fun, but it wasn’t. Perhaps they submitted it on April 1st, though?
Anyway, all joking aside, the core of the article is based on an old and relatively well established theory about how life began on Earth. The theory is known as panspermia, and it really has been discussed by serious scientists.
Panspermia is a hypothesis proposing that microscopic life forms that can survive the effects of space, such as extremophiles, become trapped in debris ejected into space after collisions between planets and small Solar System bodies that harbor life. Some organisms may travel dormant for an extended amount of time before colliding randomly with other planets or intermingling with proto-planetary disks. Under certain ideal impact circumstances (into a body of water, for example), and ideal conditions on a new planet’s surfaces, it is possible that the surviving organisms could become active and begin to colonize their new environment. — Wikipedia
Here is a 2 minute video segment from Tech Insider that covers the scientific basis of the panspermia theory relative to Mars, and an article from Scientific American that goes into more depth about various discussions about it among well known scientists.
The Origins of Directed Panspermia (Christian Orlic, Scientific American)
Of course, the usual biological suspects mentioned are those cute little water bears, but this is not the first time octopuses have been included in the list of suspects.
Given the recent understanding of the necessary conditions for life existing on large ocean moons of Jupiter and Saturn, the theory that octopuses are from elsewhere in our solar system isn’t quite as crazy as it might sound. Here’s a video about Saturn’s moon Enceladus.
If you listen to the whole story, you will hear that some scientists tend to believe that it is actually Jupiter’s moon Europa that is the older, and thus the more likely candidate to harbor ocean life beyond Earth. This has been reinforced by a study just published in Nature this month that shows reanalysis of old data gathered by NASA’s Galileo probe back in the 1990s provided unexpected evidence of salt water plumes on Europa.
Evidence of a plume on Europa from Galileo magnetic and plasma wave signatures (Xianzhe Jia, et al. Nature)
Unfortunately, the scientific basis of the particular article in the news about a life form on Earth being from space, while not as nutty as it might sound, has serious flaws. Here are two articles that are far more elaborate about the criticisms being waged against the article.
Octopuses are not aliens, but boy are they a bunch of beautiful weirdos (By Sara Chodosh, Popular Science)
No, Octopuses Don’t Come From Outer Space (Brandon Specktor, Live Science)
Still, you can kind of see why they would think that octopuses, in particular, are alien. They are indisputably the weirdest, intelligent life form on Earth. That much is pretty much hard to deny. Here’s a lovely video that goes into just some of the reasons that is the case.
Here are a couple of entertaining videos that show what it’s like to meet octopuses (National Geographic).
Those where in captivity. Here’s what they look like in the wild, and in a full 360° to boot!
Okay, this could go on and on. I’ve got videos of these creatures escaping from a jar, going through holes the size of a quarter, stealing crabs from fisherman, using shells to hide from prey, walking on land to hunt and a ton of other absurd things that they can do that you don’t exactly expect from a lump of flesh with some eyes and suckers. You can see them all on the octopus page if you like.
However, one of the most bizarre things about them turns out to be their DNA. Here are some videos and links that show how Ragsdale Lab at the University of Chicago found out some extremely surprising truths about octopus DNA that explains their amazing powers of camouflage, dexterity and deception
Cliff Ragsdale lab leads international team in successful sequencing of Octopus genome (Department of Neurobiology, University of Chicago)
The octopus genome and the evolution of cephalopod neural and morphological novelties (Nature)
The octopus genome and the evolution of cephalopod neural and morphological novelties (Caroline B. Albertin, et al. Nature)
So octopuses are impressively weird, and they are wicked smart too. That doesn’t make them “aliens,” right?
Well, hold on to your brains, because that isn’t even the strangest thing about them. New research has shown that they can even edit their own RNA! Here’s a video about this along with some supporting sources.
Curiouser and Curiouser–Octopus’s Evolution Is Even Stranger Than Thought (Bret Stetka, Scientific American)
How octopuses, squid, and cuttlefish defy genetics central dogma (Eureka Alert, AAAS)
Global proliferation of cephalopods (Zoë A. Doubleday et. al., Current Biology)
In the end, octopuses really are relatively alien, whether or not they’re from space. The thing is, even if they are from Earth, which honestly, they probably are, then that means some core things emerge, independently, in entirely different biological milieus.
That’s kind of awesome news, when you think about it!
Who knows? Maybe water bears really are from Mars and octopuses are from Jupiter, or well, Europa specifically. There is also that pesky little problem of that unexplained methane on Mars, so who knows?
We could by now, but we don’t.
Specific theories about octopuses and water bears aside, there are serious scientists that do believe that life on Earth may have come from space in general, and that said life might still be out there elsewhere in our solar system right now. We also have the technology that we need to find out what is, or is not, lurking about on other planets and moons. The real question is whether or not it will happen, soon, perhaps in some of our lifetimes, or at all, in the future history of humanity.