It seems that we know what death is. At least that's what we think. But the simple definition of death – stopping the body's life – doesn't take into account how strange our bodies actually are. As Peter Noble, a former professor at the University of Alabama told Discover, scientists know almost nothing about what happens when a person dies. Noble knows firsthand that surprises await those studying death: for example, he helped discover that sleeping genes can be activated several hours or even days after death. But how and why does this happen?
Creepy zombie genes
A gene is a series of chemical instructions that consist of DNA and tell the body how to do something. When the gene is activated, these chemical instructions are transcribed by RNA, and the cells can use the copied sequence as a scaffold to build complex molecules. When you imagine that a gene is a recipe in a cookbook, activation is a list of the ingredients that are required for cooking.
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During the study, Noble and colleagues from the University of Washington tested a technique for measuring gene activity. As a control, tissues from recently deceased zebras were analyzed. The researchers expected a steady decline in new gene copies as cell activity decreased. However, they found something surprising – with some notable exceptions. After the zebras died, about one percent of their genes came to life. Everything looked like the cells were preparing to build something.
The idea that genes are activated after the body dies is incredible. The researchers decided that the reason for the results was a malfunction of the equipment. Repeated tests on fish and then on mice continued to confirm the impossible: genes are activated several hours or even days after the body's death. The results of the scientists met with skepticism until a group of researchers led by Roderick Guigo from the Barcelona Center for Genomic Regulation also discovered posthumous gene activity, this time in humans. Guigo and his team examined gene regulation by analyzing the tissue of people who donated their bodies after death. Their work was already in full swing when Noble's article was published, so they weren't surprised by his team's results.
Which genes are activated after death?
In the future, the results may provide scientists with a better understanding of how genes work in living organisms and how organs change on a molecular level after death. In the course of the work, the researchers also found that different genes are activated at different intervals after death – one of them can be activated regularly six hours after death, while the other can be activated after 24 hours. Forensic scientists could use this information to more accurately estimate the time of death.
Why can genes be activated after the body dies? Share your opinion in the comments and with the participants in our telegram chat
Despite the possibilities that research offers, the reason why genes are activated after death is unknown. Scientists do not rule out that the key to the solution could lie in the types of these genes. Although none of the zombie genes appear to cause physical changes after death, many of them are associated with activities that are normally strictly regulated or suppressed by the body. This includes genes that are responsible for the beginning of the formation of the spine. If you have this, no new one is needed. Other genes that are activated after death are linked to the development of cancer. In general, the results of the studies showed that death is a more subtle process than previously thought. Death does not mean that all billions of cells in the body stop working immediately. The onset of death means that they stop working together. The hours and days when these bonds break and life disappears are new frontiers for science.