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September 19, 2018

What Kenyans should learn from an octopus

For a long healthy life, it really does not matter what you eat as long as from a nutritional perspective the food contains the basic nutrients in the right quantities and the diet is balanced. And so across the world people eat and try to eat almost everything. Medicine enters into the equation when any of these three rules are broken. For example, a beer has some nutritional value but we all recognise that it should not be the primary source of nutrients in your diet. Food is not just a matter of what you eat and do not eat, there is an issue of when and how you prepare and then eat food. From medical perspective this is important too and is studied mainly through sociology and anthropology. Understanding why people at individual and community level fall ill is as important as understanding what is happening at molecular level. So rules about what a society decides are food — many Kenyan communities define food as equivalent to ugali — are important in understanding why some people suffer from malnutrition or over-nutrition. To learn these rules we can study societal interactions and we can also study animals, some of whom exhibit behaviour similar to humans. A recently published study by the octopus research group at the Hebrew University illustrates this point.

The octopus for those who live upcountry is a cephalopod mollusc of the order Octopoda. The ‘octo’ meaning eight, not to be confused with “October’ the tenth month of the year, is because the animal has four pairs of arms. Despite these many limbs, the octopus has some similarities with human beings. The octopus is an invertebrate and so has no skeleton, which means that it can despite its relative size squeeze through tiny spaces. All human beings are supposed to have a backbone, but as we know there are many among us who lack a spine and so whenever they are asked to stand up and be counted they melt away only to reconstitute themselves when out of perceived danger. The second feature of an octopus is its brain. Among invertebrates the octopus brain has a large number of neurons and is considered among the most intelligent. Think of an octopus and other molluscs like snails the way humans and monkeys are related. The third shared similarity possibly arising from this large brain is the way the octopus is able to find food while making sure that it does not entangle itself in knots.

Because the octopus has no skeleton, it lacks an easy way of determining where exactly its entire body is. One reason you know your foot is not on your head is because it is attached to your leg bone, then thigh bone which via the pelvis is anchored on to the spine. At one end of your spine sits your head, which integrates all the positional sensations it receives, so your body can tell that you are standing up or lying down. What the body does not have to worry about is where your fifth right toe is in relation to your left middle finger. The bones take care of that. For the octopus and its eight limbs this is a problem. Each of its arms is relatively independent in the search for food and if you see a live octopus, the arms appear to be flailing in an uncoordinated fashion as it moves along. All along the surface of the arm are sucker pads that are activated when food such as a small crab is found.

The question that has now been answered by the octopus research group is why the suckers do not attach themselves to the octopus itself. If you have ever dealt with superglue you will know that this is a real question. The answer was found in the skin of the octopus, which apparently has a chemical that the suckers recognise to be ‘octopus’ and so they do not attack. Most impressive is that the reaction is sucker specific so that even if one sucker touches the octopus and another on the same arm touches food, the second one reacts and grabs the food. For medicine this is exciting news because it allows the possibility that one day a surgical device can be made that once introduced into the body goes straight to a particular organ bypassing ones you are not interested in and then grabs the tissue of interest and comes out with it.

Last week we witnessed senior policemen blaming their wives for not availing bank statements to enable their spouses to be vetted and cleared. In a sense the problem they had and the problem society has is being able to separate what we need from what we do not need and is potentially harmful. We could eat everything all the time hoping that the good outweighs the bad, eventually receiving all the nutrients we require, but at what cost? So we have to discriminate to protect the body. Recognising our society has gone the purely legal way trying to create a room with no tiny holes for people to squeeze through forgetting that for the octopus with no spine this is no problem at all. The trick here is to enable society to stiffen its spine. And then if we learn how the octopus manages to take care of not harming itself perhaps we can learn to not pick up potentially harmful things. Then we can swim about carefree.

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