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Marine organisms, with their many unique characteristics and traits honed over millions of years of evolution, represent the next frontier of basic biological discovery. Many marine species can regenerate tissues, and even whole limbs, while others exhibit novel mechanisms of reproduction, genetics, healing, and behavior. Exploring life in the oceans will have profound effects on our understanding of biology and its applications to our own health and wellbeing.

Cephalopods (squid, octopus, cuttlefish, and nautilus) are a class of molluscs with an evolutionary history spanning more than 500 million years. Inhabiting every ocean at almost every depth, they possess unique adaptations such as grasping arms lined with chemosensory suckers, the ability to regenerate complex limbs, vertebrate-like eyes, and a sophisticated camouflage system.

Cephalopods are quick-change artists who use highly developed camouflage tactics to change their appearance with unparalleled speed and diversity. Pigmented skin cells enable cephalopods to camouflage themselves to avoid predators and to communicate with one another. Cuttlefish and octopus can also swiftly and reversibly morph their skin’s bumps, or papillae, to mimic seaweed, coral, or other objects. By studying and modeling the real thing in cephalopods, engineers are developing bio-inspired materials with a range of applications—from digital display screens that mimic squid skin’s optical characteristics, to programmable, synthetic, 3D-textured “camouflaging skin” inspired by octopus.

With large, highly developed brains, cephalopods are the most intelligent invertebrates and are famous for engaging in elaborate problem-solving and learning behavior, such as unscrewing a jar to obtain their prey sealed within. The cephalopod nervous system, while organized in a radically different manner, is comparable in size to that of mammals. This behavioral complexity makes them excellent research subjects in many fields, including neuroscience, physiology, behavioral science, sensory perception, evolutionary development, materials science, and robotics.

Today, biology and biomedicine are fixed on the gene and its function. To study biology at the highest levels we must be able to manipulate gene function and see the outcome. At the MBL scientists are embarking on a groundbreaking new effort to culture cephalopods in the laboratory with the goal of creating a new genetic model system. Recent MBL research has found high levels of RNA editing in cephalopod species, a process rarely seen in mammals and other animals. Scientists are exploring the purpose of the extensive RNA editing and are also learning how to manipulate the RNA editing system, to guide it toward correcting mutations in genetic disease or malfunctions in proteins that are critical to health. Research on cephalopods will deepen our understanding of biological functions in diverse areas of science and can lead to innovations, including:

  • Modeling of neural circuitry: wiring of the octopus brain
  • Exploring the evolutionary basis for tissue and organ regeneration
  • Uncovering novel mechanisms of camouflage
  • Imaging biology in action in the transparent embryos of cephalopods, and in translucent adults
  • Understanding the make-up, structure, and impact of cephalopod microbiomes

Cephalopod husbandry is difficult. MBL aquarists are looking to culture multiple cephalopod species in the lab over multiple generations—from egg to adult and adult to egg again—what they call “closing the life cycle.” Several cephalopod species including bobtail squid, pygmy squid, and flamboyant cuttlefish make good candidates for wide use in research. Their eggs hatch in two to three weeks, adults are small, and their life span short.

Read more about MBL's Cephalopod Research

Squid Communicate With a Secret, Skin-Powered Alphabet | WIRED
Octopuses Rewrite RNA. Is That Why They’re So Smart? | Washington Post
Octopus-Inspired ‘Skin’ May Give Robots 3D Camouflage | NBC News
I Am Not a Monster: Science Turns the Squid from Storied Monster to Marvel | Nautilus
Battle of Cuttlefish Caught on Tape | The New York Times