“We really know nothing about what happens when you die,” says Peter Noble, a former professor at the University of Alabama. Noble knows firsthand that surprises await scientists studying the end of life: he helped discover that long-dormant genes can spring into action hours or even days after an organism dies.
These discoveries could give us a better understanding of how genes work when we’re still alive, and they might help improve medical procedures like organ transplants. “Knowing how organs change on a molecular level after the death of the body … could maybe help to improve the practices for organ transplantation or organ preservation,” says [researcher Roderic] Guigó.
The other big potential application of their studies, say Guigó and Noble, is in forensic science. The researchers found that different genes activate at different time intervals after death—one might regularly kick in six hours post-mortem, whereas another might fire up 24 hours later. Forensic scientists might be able to apply this information to make more accurate estimates of time of death.
While the reason for the reactivation of these genes remains elusive, what’s clear is that death is a more nuanced process than previously thought.
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