In a controversial article, some thirty scientists propose that the evolution of the octopus is linked to the insertion of genes from extraterrestrial viruses. According to them, retroviruses are involved in the Cambrian explosion which resulted in a large and sudden diversification of species.
Published in Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology, the article is, however, far from being unanimously. Among the 33 authors, some come from renowned universities, such as Chandra Wickramasinghe, honorary professor at the University of Buckingham (UK), a fervent follower of the panspermia theory.
The question posed by this article is whether the Cambrian explosion, which took place 500 million years ago, is of terrestrial or cosmic origin. In their article, the authors suggest that viruses, retroviruses, played a role in this Cambrian explosion that saw a sudden and unprecedented diversification of species.
The emergence of complex retroviruses occurred just before the Cambrian explosion. Panspermia could explain all this: comets would have brought retroviruses that favored the Cambrian explosion. These viruses have become integrated into the genome of terrestrial species, introducing new genetic material and leading to the diversification of living species.
Some arguments are in line with the theory of panspermia: molecules found on the Murchison meteorite, which fell in Australia in 1969, but also the discovery of bacteria in the stratosphere, more than 30 km from the surface of the Earth. Similarly, the Philae lander of the European Space Agency, which landed on the Comet Tchouri in 2014, showed that the comet is rich in macromolecular organic matter.
But the most controversial part of the article is about octopus, because the authors suggest that these animals could have evolved only thanks to an extraterrestrial boost… The cephalopods appeared at the end of the Cambrian and come down from a primitive nautiloid. Octopuses (or octopuses) have a complex nervous system, sophisticated eyes, and the ability to camouflage themselves.
The genes needed for these transformations were not present in the common ancestor, according to the authors, who say: “It is therefore plausible to suggest that they seem to be borrowed from a distant “future” in terms of terrestrial evolution, or more precisely from the cosmos in general. The authors believe that “the evolution of octopuses from squids is compatible with a series of genes inserted by extraterrestrial viruses” and illustrate their purpose with a very schematic drawing that has elicited many reactions (see below).
The article goes even further, proposing that octopus eggs kept in the cold of a comet would have been brought to Earth: “Thus the possibility that cryopreserved Squid and/or Octopus eggs, arrived in icy bolides several hundred million years ago should not be discounted as that would be a parsimonious cosmic explanation for the Octopus’ sudden emergence on Earth circa 270 million years ago.”
Karin Moelling, from the Max Planck Institute, commented on the article in the same review: “This article is useful, it challenges and is worth thinking about, but the main statement about viruses, microbes and even animals coming from space can not be taken seriously.”