When Dr. Jerome Wodinsky wanted to study the behavior of the male octopus after its sex glands have been removed, he decided to practice the surgery first on the female.
"Everybody knows that once the female lays its eggs it stops eating and automatically dies, so I figured I'd try the surgery to remove the glands on post-egg-laying females because they were going to die anyway," the Brandeis University psychologist said yesterday from his home in Boston. "Lo and behold, I performed the surgery on several of the females and all of a sudden they began to eat and grow and live. believe me, this was a purely accidental discovery."
The "accidental discovery" by Wodinsky is that when the female octopus lays its eggs and then loses its sex glands it doesn't starve itself and die. Instead, the female octopus eats so much it doubles it weight, and, more importantly, doubles its lifespan. Wodinsky's accident may be the first time science has stayed the process of dying.
Wodinsky explains it all in the cover article this week in Science magazine, where he talks of his discovery as a unique means of maintaining the population size of one of the ocean's greatest predators as well as a tool for scientists to study the aging process.
"The finding that removal of an endocrine gland leads to an increased life span supports the hypothesis that aging is a function of extrinsic effects upon cellular aging phenomena," Wodinsky writes in Science. "The hormonal control of such processess in the octopus may provide an excellent model for analysis of the mechanisms involved."
Put another way, Wodinsky had this to say over the telephone. "I've shown a beautiful system at work here, that if the gland is there and it secretes hormones the animal dies. If the gland is not there, it lives. An on-and-off effect, supporting the idea that it's the endocrine system that's responsible for the old age and death of the octopus."
Wodinsky's finding has all the looks of a scientific "breakthrough," partly because of his practice surgery on the female octopus, partly because few biologists and even fewer psychologists work on the octopus and partly because it's been so difficult to work with the octopus inside a laboratory, where Wodinsky did his work.
Wodinsky anesthetized the animals be soaking them in alcohol, "getting them drunk." When he finished surgery, he sewed the animals right up again, which turned out to be useless.
"Nobody's ever found an octopus that keeps the sutures in, they always pull them out." Wodinsky said. "Either they untie the knots or they just pull the threads with the silk right through the skin."
Surgery involved covering each animal's eight arms, wetting them with the right kind of salt water, and making a single incision between the eyes. Removed were the two "optic" glands, so-called because they're between the eyes. They're like the pituitary glands of most land animals.The literally control the production of the hormones the octopus secretes to maintain all kinds of body functions.
One function is sex and reproduction. Normally, the female octopus spawns once, eats less while caring for the eggs and nothing after hatching them. The female's life span is incredibly short - no more than nine months in all, and no more than two months after hatching the eggs.
Wodinsky removed the optic glands from 14 female octopuses who had laid their eggs and had already reduced their food intake while caring for their eggs. Most stopped caring for their eggs as soon as they awakened from surgery. All resumed eating. Most went on eating and doubled their body weight. Most doubled their life spans, dying without explanation months after they were expected to die.
"I think this is the first time the mechanism of death has been attributed to an endocrine system, and my best guess is that somehow the gland blocks the digestive system from producing enzymes that break up protein," Wodinsky said. "So I think the females literally starve themselves to death."
Besides a useful tool for study of the aging process. Wodinsky thinks surgical removal of the glands might have another useful purpose; "The Japanese have tried to rear young octopus for food. This is a better way to do it."