Genes take a shot at rebooting after death

Have you tried turning it off, and turning it back on again?

In one of the creepiest bits of science Vulture South has ever encountered, a US scientist has identified 1,000 genes that become active after death.

Not just immediately post-mortem, either: some of the genes in question, found in zebrafish, remained active four days after the fish died (and in mice, they were active two days after death).

It looks almost like genes making a last-ditch attempt to keep things going: they're associated with the immune system, inflammation, and responses to stress.

But as Science magazine points out, there are some surprises in the list, such as developmental genes that switch on after death, something the leader of the research, Peter Noble, calls “jaw-dropping”.

Developmental genes control the development of embryos, but are silenced after birth.

Another surprise, and one that could be important in transplant science, is that genes that promote cancer also get active after death. Noble told Science this could provide a mechanism to explain why organ recipients are at a higher risk of cancer than the general population (especially since immune-suppressing drugs are needed to prevent organ rejection).

In their pre-print at Biorxiv, the researchers dub the genes “thanatotranscriptome”, and in separate work suggest they could help forensic science develop better ways to determine the time of death. ®


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