It’s probably not enough to cause an apocalypse or even make a plot for a decent horror movie, but new research finds that many genes in dead mice and zebrafish live for up to 48 hours after death and the same could be true for humans. Are the genes active enough to scare your cat with a zombie mouse?
Microbiologist Peter Noble at the University of Washington was testing the activity of genes in the organs of mice and zebrafish immediately after death. Why?
(It’s) an experiment of curiosity to see what happens when you die. We can probably get a lot of information about life by studying death.
Noble and his team knew from a previous study that microbes in human organs live for many hours after death. To determine if this applies to the rest of the body, they hired a humpback man named Igor to bring them fresh samples.
Actually, they studied dead mice and zebrafish first by measuring the amount of active messenger RNA they have – a sign that genes are still telling cells what to do. Of the 1000 genes analyzed in each species, 548 zebrafish genes and 515 mouse genes were active after death for up to 2 days in the mice and four in the fish. Even more surprising, some activity actually increased in the dead animals, including genes that are normally only active at birth, not death.
What’s going on here? One theory is that the genes are automatically firing up to aid in the healing process in case this was just a serious injury or trauma and not death. Another theory is that some genes also suppress others from developing and when they die, the suppressed genes suddenly are freed to become active - the probably cause of embryonic genes firing up after death and the possible reason why suppressed cancer cells in organs can become active and cause cancer in transplant recipients.
This new research has some benefits and raises some serious question. While it can help forensic scientists better determine the time of death, it also casts doubt on or traditional definitions of death itself. If a person’s genes are still functioning 48 hours after other vitals signs cease, are they still alive?
The next step is to perform the mice and zebrafish tests on human cadavers. Igor?