‘Undead’ Genes Activate Days After Life Ends


    Is death truly our final stage of existence? While this debate has raged on for centuries, a recent study may have found that at least part of us lives on, even after death.

    Peter Noble of the University of Washington in Seattle set out to discover how zombies would be able to terrorize the living, even after they had died. In order to do this, they used a new method that allowed them to study the activity of genes. Two years prior to their study regarding genes and their activity after death, they had begun using the method for more morbid means by applying it to postmortem samples.

    “It’s an experiment of curiosity to see what happens when you die,” Noble says.

    And while a three-year-study informed Noble and his colleagues that genes remained active for hours after death, his newest take on the study shows something far more interesting. According to his research, not only do genes remain active, some gene activity actually spikes up to four days after death.

    “This is a rare study,” molecular pharmacologist Ashim Malhotra of Pacific University, Hillsboro, in Oregon, explained to Science magazine. “It is important to understand what happens to organs after a person dies, especially if we are going to transplant them.”

    She also explained that Noble’s research could prove quite effective at predicting the quality of organ transplants in the future.

    In order to conduct his study, Noble and colleagues used deceased mice and zebrafish. They measured the RNA levels in the tissues of the specimen, and by doing so, they found more than 1,000 active genes.

    “Since our results show that the system has not reached equilibrium yet it would be interesting to address the following question: What would happen if we arrested the process of dying by providing nutrients and oxygen to tissues?” the study says. “It might be possible for cells to revert back to life or take some interesting path to differentiating into something new or lose differentiation altogether, such as in cancer.”

    And while the study may have set out to explore various scenarios regarding the circumstances following death, it may have found something exponentially more important. While studying the genes of the mice and zebrafish, researchers began to wonder if certain genes were activated due to others shutting off after death. It this was true, then researchers could actually learn more about the process of evolution and how these networks evolved. Noble concluded by saying, “The headline of this study is that we can probably get a lot of information about life by studying death.”

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