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SYFY WIRE genetics

Crazy calamari! This superpowered squid can change its own genetic code

By Jeff Spry

Human beings are a highly adaptable bunch of bipeds, being able to swiftly change their lifestyles, clothes, hair, chewing gum brands, and political opinions as the wind blows. But none of us are capable of intentionally altering our own genetic code as this superpowered species of squid has demonstrated!

In what could one day be used to affect gene-editing medicines and therapies to cure diseases in people, a new research paper published this week in the online journal Nucleic Acids Research presents evidence that a particular species of longfin inshore squid (Doryteuthis pealeii), commonly used as bait fish, is the first-ever animal known to change messenger RNA outside of the cell nucleus. Most all creatures on this planet enact changes to their DNA from the cell nucleus via messenger RNA, but this crafty little oceanic creature takes a unique shortcut.

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Scientists working out of the famous Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts found that this extreme RNA editing process occurs within the squid on a fantastic scale, using over 60,000 brain cells, and dwarfing the hundreds of similar sites registering in humans.

Joshua Rosenthal, a senior scientist at Woods Hole, together with colleagues from Tel Aviv University and the University of Colorado at Denver theorize that this method of recoding allows the squid to better adapt to rapidly fluctuating environmental conditions like water temperature. This revolutionary RNA editing takes place inside the squid’s axon, the elongated section of the brain cell that transmits electrical signals to neighboring neurons. Reformulating their RNA outside the nucleus lets these squid more effectively change protein function nearer to the segment of the body that requires adaptation.

“It works by this massive tweaking of its nervous system,” Rosenthal explains. “Which is a really novel way of going through life.”

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The implication for applications and exploration within today's gene-tweaking Crispr-centric technologies for fighting human ailments are enormous, since the squid does this type of editing with messenger RNA instead of DNA. Crispr medical research involves irreversible changes in DNA, but due to the diminishing aspects of unused messenger RNA, temporary errors included by a certain gene therapy would be wiped away as opposed to remaining within someone's body permanently.

“If you have some faulty information inside of your genome—say, you inherited a nucleotide base from your parents, and normally it’s a ‘G’ [guanine] and it’s an ‘A’ [adenine] in you—then you could potentially change it back by editing the RNA,” Rosenthal notes, pointing to a pair of building blocks that comprise RNA. "RNA editing is a hell of a lot safer than DNA editing. If you make a mistake, the RNA just turns over and goes away."

So next time you order the calamari, remember that a member of your tasty squid's extended family could one day help in improving the health and vitality of all humanity. Now please pass the salt and melted butter!