Science X-Files

Afterlife? Human Genes Remain Active After We Die

Afterlife? Human Genes Remain Active After We Die

Does death really mean the end of our existence? When a doctor declares a person dead, some of their body may still be alive and kicking – at least for a day or two. New discovery shows one aspect of life continues: Genes remain turned on days after death.

Genetic material could be used to pinpoint the time of a person’s death, according to a new study from the Centre for Genomic Regulation in Barcelona, published in the journal Nature Communications.

The researchers study from the Centre for Genomic Regulation in Barcelona analyzed 9,000 tissue samples from thirty-nine deceased persons with information about a donor’s time of death and when the samples were preserved. The scientific team used the unique patterns of change in each tissue to trace the moment when the person died.  36 different types of tissue from 540 corpses were examined by the research team.

Afterlife? Human Genes Remain Active After We DieThis behavior is still puzzling scientists, but Guigó offers a possible explanation: “I would guess that one of the major changes is due to the cessation of flow of blood, therefore I would say probably the main environmental change is hypoxia, the lack of oxygen, but I don't have the proof for this.”

What has new study found

Human genes and their activity are defined by two types of code, DNA and RNA. Essentially, DNA is a set of instructions, while RNA reads the instructions and translates them into actions and bodily functions. This new study has found that RNA continues to transcribe the DNA’s instructions even after the moment of death.

Professor Roderic Guigó, study leading researcher, claims that human genes have some kind of transformation after person dies.

There is a reaction of the individual cells to the death of the organism, and this reaction implies that, contrary to what you’d expect, some genes are actually activating, increasing their expression, actually functioning more actively than before death; and other genes actually decrease expression. This is the effect of the reaction of individual cells, which do not die immediately when the organism dies, to the death of the organism. This is reflected in the changing patterns of gene expression.

How genes change expression after death?

Roderic Guigó: What we were trying to explore in our analysis is actually the cause of death. So probably the way in which we die, is also [revealed] in the way genes change expression. However, we did not have enough diversity in the causes of death to be able to actually predict what was the cause of death. But we believe that probably there is an impact in the way in which genes change expression, depending on whether you die immediately, like from a gunshot, or a car accident, or you die because you had a heart attack, or you die under controlled conditions in a hospital. So I think that all these things probably are reflected in the way in which genes change expression after death.

Researchers hope that this new discovery will help forensic scientists more accurately pinpoint the time of a person’s death.


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