Undead Genes

Although we know that some bodily functions continue after death, it seems that this is just the tip of the iceberg. A team of researchers from the University of Washington found proof that our perception of what happens to the body after death is far from accurate. Research published in Forensic Science International, has found that not only did gene activity continue in deceased mice and zebrafish—they actually became hyperactive.

A female specimen of a zebrafish. Image Credit: © User:Azul/Wikimedia Commons

The team decided to study gene activity in cadavers after recently finding that a similar phenomenon was occurring in human cadavers for more than 12 hours after death. In mice, 515 genes were seen running at full capacity up to 24 hours after death; in zebrafish 548 genes ran four whole days before showing any signs of deterioration.

Interestingly, the genes involved also weren’t just random genes—they were genes that activate in emergencies, such as those that fire up the immune system and counteract stress.

The phenomenon was discovered when fluctuating levels of messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) were detected in the cells of cadavers. This implied that more genes were currently active.

Cancer and Organ Transplants

Apart from the emergency-active genes, some of the genes identified are those usually active during the developmental stage of embryo formation and then lie dormant. Apparently, these genes activate again after death, as if desperately trying to reanimate the dead.

Nope, not yet. Credit: AMC.

The bad side, however, is that with the relapse of the genes to the embryonic stage comes a spark in genes that also promote cancer growth. Research by Marilyn Monk and Cathy Holding states: “human preimplantation embryonic cells are similar in phenotype to cancer cells.” This means activation after death correlates to cancer formation. This could explain why recipients of organs from deceased donors have a much higher risk of developing cancer.

Despite this proof that zombie-like genes do exist, the public does not need to worry. This phenomenon is not enough to reanimate the dead, and this study is focused on understanding and developing better organ transplant methods, particularly mitigating risks associated with it. 

“The headline of this study is that we can probably get a lot of information about life by studying death,” says Peter Noble, microbiologist and leader of the research.

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