Cephalopods like octopuses and squids have long captivated human imagination, but let’s leave observational research about them in the ocean and save the laboratory for more human-relevant approaches.
Cephalopods are a class of mollusks that include octopuses, squids, cuttlefish and nautiluses. They are fascinating creatures with a slew of unique skills in their repertoire such as camouflaging their skin, ejecting clouds of ink at predators, and re-growing limbs. They are widely regarded as the most intelligent of the invertebrates, having large brains, complex nervous systems, and the ability to perform sophisticated cognitive tasks. Octopuses, for example, have been known to unscrew jars to get food, carry shells as armor, and even escape from captivity.
The fact that cephalopods have such mystifying talents and advanced cognitive capacity compared to other invertebrates certainly makes them interesting research subjects. But unfortunately because they are invertebrates, cephalopods are not covered by United States animal welfare laws and regulations covering federally-funded laboratories, going against international guidelines for their care and welfare in research.
Cephalopod use in research dates to at least 100 years ago when Leonard Worcester Williams described squid anatomy, including its nervous system. The giant squid axon would later become the model of choice for studying neuronal action potentials and subsequently the subject of the 1963 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Today, cephalopods are used in a number of health-related projects including studies of RNA editing and bacterial colonization. RNA editing is a process by which RNA gets modified in order to repair genomic mutations or create a more diverse set of proteins from the same sequence of DNA. Bacterial colonization is the presence of a microbial environment on or in the body that can by symbiotic or trigger harmful immune responses. These phenomena play important roles in human health and disease, and their investigation should therefore utilize human samples, tissues, and cell cultures in order to maximize mechanistic and therapeutic insight.
Despite researchers’ claims that they're being preemptive about the humane treatment of cephalopods in their labs, the lack of regulatory oversight means that researchers can capture, study, and sacrifice these animals without approved protocols from ethics committees. Cephalopods are already protected by laboratory animal laws in Canada, the UK, New Zealand, and the EU, and it’s time for the US to follow suit. Moreover, it’s time for medical research to come into the 21st century and make use of approaches that are more relevant for human health and more predictive of disease states.