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Fine – Octopi are awesome, I get it.

Screen Shot 2015-08-17 at 11.49.37 PMBut aliens?

Doubtful.

The Irish Examinier posts, ‘Don’t freak out, but scientists think octopuses ‘might be aliens’ after DNA study.‘ I guess this is just an eye-catching title to bring in readers for a pretty straight-forward article about how octopi are different from other animals. This article is referring to new data published in Nature following  DNA analysis of the octopus, Octopus bimaculoides.

Octopi can escape confinements, like this one that was sealed inside a jar with a screwcap:

They can move over land as well as in the water (especially when motivated by food):

They can mimic other animals:

And use camouflage to hide:

Briefly, though, I would like to take a second to look critically at the basic claim – not because it’s realistic, but because it’s useful to think about what we would or wouldn’t expect to find in a real alien.

claim:      “octopus DNA is highly rearranged – like cards shuffled and reshuffled in a pack – containing numerous so-called “jumping genes” that can leap around the genome. ”

answer: it’s  interesting that their DNA is rearranged in ways that we don’t see in other species, but it’s still DNA, right? And it still follows the same ‘universal codon’ rules dictating what codons (3 letter nucleotide sequences) call for what amino acids. That all life uses the same DNA and rules for its use is one of the most convincing pieces of evidence that all life on earth is related to one another.

claim:    Octopi have “eight prehensile arms, [a] large brain and … clever problem-solving abilities”

answer: This all just makes them interesting specimens, not alien.  Albert Einstein was extraordinarily smart and was not caught up in group-think (at least early in his career). This made his a great scientist, not an extraterrestrial.

claim:     “Analysis of 12 different tissues revealed hundreds of octopus-specific genes found in no other animal, many of them highly active in structures such as the brain, skin and suckers. ”

answer: This is actually great evidence of a large gap between octopi and other organisms, perhaps even stumbling upon new genes or gene combinations that allowed them to rapidly evolve away from homologies with their closest phylogenetic neighbors. Perhaps this phylogenetic tree might be hinting at such a separation for mollusks?

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claim:  “Hox genes – which control body plan development – cluster together in almost all animals but are scattered throughout the octopus genome. ”

answer: Pretty cool. But I’ve always wondered what kept these genes together in other animals rather than why are they scattered in the octopus. Difference is always intriguing though, so I get why this is notable. from the paper that elicited the Irish Examiner article, Albertin, et al, comes this cartoon of the arrangement of hox genes in other species compared to the scattering across several chromosomes in octopi:

i-3d10d2b119aa766df39871ead4a8a19c-hoxcode_hox

Rather than call them aliens, which I agree might grab the interest of Discovery Channel viewers, I prefer Albertin, et al’s description, “Our analysis suggests that substantial expansion of a handful of gene families, along with extensive remodelling of genome linkage and repetitive content, played a critical role in the evolution of cephalopod morphological innovations, including their large and complex nervous systems.”

 
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Posted by on August 17, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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Delving into the Bigfoot Aliens who built the Pyramids in Giza

ImageThe Science Channel and Animal Planet have some excellent science and nature programming that I enjoy watching with my son. It makes me happy to see his interest piqued by Big Cat Diaries or How It’s Made or The Wonders of the Universe.

ImageBut it troubles me that sometimes these shows will end and immediately something about Bigfoot’s Ghost comes on. The positive effect of quality program rapidly erodes when juxtaposed against pseudo-science hogwash and I’m not sure how to handle it other than to constantly talk to him about what good science looks like compared to a well choreographed hoax or wild goose chase. ‘Does the Loch Ness Monster really control the US Stock Market?’

‘We may never know….’

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Explore an expanding Universe and a shrinking Intellect back to back on the science channel

‘But wait!’ you say.’Isn’t there some merit to asking the question? I mean, we don’t know for sure do we?’

Of course. The robot overlords may actually be the ones who keep making us forget where we left our car keys. But is it really the most likely answer? Maybe you weren’t paying attention when you put them down because you also had groceries, your iPhone and a couple of old coffee cups in your hands when you came home.

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Gad Zooks! A ghost bite!

Do we have no way of sorting out probable causes from improbable ones?

Discovery Communications, owners of The Science Channel, The Discovery Channel, TLC and other media outlets offers this mission statement:

 

dcimissionstatement

Hey, Ghostbusters was entertaining and engaging. But was it enlightening?

 
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Posted by on February 28, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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Both classes have quizzes tomorrow…

The theme of some of my extra credit questions (the non-science ones) is science fiction films.

These two films, released in 1979 and 1982 both begin with the exploration of supposedly dead worlds. In each film, something old and unexpected is awakened, but the similarities end there. I could easily call either of these films a favorite.

Star_Trek_II_The_Wrath_of_Khan_DVD_coverThe Wrath of Kahn has the benefit of using an incredibly clever recollection of an old storyline from the TV series. The original episode, space seed, introduced us to Kahn, a product of genetic engineering in the late 20th century. Kahn fled Earth after his failed attempt at seizing control of the planet for himself and placed himself, along with many of his men and women into cryogenic sleep. They are awakened after drifting through space for hundred of years and no sooner is Kahn recovered from his long sleep, does he take control of the Enterprise. Inexplicably, once Kirk takes back command, he decides to leave Kahn on a nearby planet.

The Film picks up after the federation rediscovers Kahn during a scientific exploration. I don’t want to spoil it or anything, but things went bad on the planet and Kahn is pissed.

Alien, on the other hand is an entirely different film. We are plunged into a very realistic future where a towing unit returning to Earth with a refinery full of ore respond to a strange transmission coming from an unknown planet. There they find some wreckage of a space ship with a mutilated body and some strange eggs. Head and shoulders above the subsequent installments, Alien was something new and unpredictable. A great, unique story, well acted, beautiful to watch and unrelentingly intense.

Alien-poster1979-45162973545

 
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Posted by on February 13, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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