Hunt for the octopus from space

Studies suggesting that the humble octopus might be from outer space have seized the attention of would-be xenobiologists.

Articles in mainstream media publications such as The Australian, citing a review of older research, have rekindled a decades-old theory that octopuses (or octopi or octopodes, depending on your linguistic mood) might be extraterrestrial in origin.

This has led commentators to slap their metaphorical foreheads — of course! — and point to the marine animals’ eight limbs, strange intelligence, Wolverine-ish regenerative abilities and weird Predator-like camouflage capabilities as attributes that should in retrospect have been dead giveaways.

The review itself, published in the apparently respectable journal Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology, summarises years of scientific speculation that alien retroviruses may have hitchhiked from their hypothetical home planets across the vast chasm of space, hidden in the ice of a visiting comet.

Upon entering Earth’s environment, the theory goes, these viruses would have proceeded to infect unsuspecting native organisms with extraterrestrial DNA, diverting their evolutionary path to produce cephalopods like squid and octopus.

Some of the more ebullient studies under review go a step further, suggesting that the unexpected flying octopuses arrived fully formed, genetically speaking, as frozen eggs that then hatched on our planet.

And now, just as they did 12 years ago (the last time the extraterrestrial octopus theory grabbed this many headlines), mildly harassed-sounding “establishment” scientists are being hounded for their take.

And they are sceptical at best.

Speaking to Quartz on the matter, virologist Karin Moelling, of the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Genetics in Berlin, generously conceded that the Progress article was worth thinking about, but “the main statement about viruses, microbes and even animals coming to us from space cannot be taken seriously”.

But let us take it seriously anyway!

Let us entertain the notion — if only for a moment — that cephalopods may be from space. How would we go about testing the hypothesis? Why, we would need to look for evidence.

The serendipitous arrival of a Cthulhic Elder God from the deep abyss of darkspace would be evidence enough. But we could not count on that, nor would we want to, if only because it would require dictionaries to come up with a new definition for “serendipitous”.

No, it would be more reasonable to simply visit a comet to look for evidence of an octopus. Fossils, perhaps. Traces of octopodal DNA, maybe. Predictions from the 2010 World Cup, definitely. Calamarian glyphs spelling out the phrase, “It’s a trap!”

That sort of thing.

In fact, finding anything at all that doesn’t fall under the broad category of “lump of rock” would be legitimate cause for scientific ululation.

Getting to our comet would be tricky. But not that much of a trick. We’re sending all sorts of things into space these days, after all. Relaunchable rockets. The second-hand tjorries of former Pretoria Boys’ High pupils. That Richard bloke who owns the gym down the road from you. And we have, after all, landed on comets before. (Well. On a comet.) So answers to the Great Octopus Question of 2018 are indeed within our grasp.

The real question is how badly humanity needs these answers.

They do say that forewarned is forearmed. But eight-armed is another story entirely.

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Matthew Du Plessis
Matthew du Plessis is the Mail & Guardian's former managing editor and chair of the Adamela Trust. He writes on the environment, dinosaurs, particle accelerators, evolutionary anthropology, genomics and super-continental fields of molten lava.

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