When life comes to an end, we assume that all our biological processes shut down.
But new research suggests that might not be the case. A range of studies conducted by the University of Washington found that certain genes remain active for up to 48 hours after clinical death.
Although these genes are not able to bring a person back to life, the findings could help further research into the safety of organ transplants.
It could also help pathologists narrow down a time of death more precisely – possibly within minutes of the occurrence.
Microbiologist Peter Noble and his team at the university studied the activity of genes in the organs of mice and zebrafish immediately after death.
They found, much to everyone’s surprise, that more than 1,000 genes remained active post-mortem – some as long as 48 hours after death.
To determine gene activity, researchers measured the amount of messenger RNA (mRNA) present within each gene.
An increase in mRNA – which tells our genes which proteins need to be produced by which cells – indicates that genes are more active.
Studies found mRNA levels decreased over time. However, the mRNA associated with zebrafish and mouse genes saw bursts of activity immediately after death – including ones responsible for foetal development.
“What’s jaw-dropping is that developmental genes are turned on after death,” Noble told Science magazine.
Researchers now believe a similar process might occur with humans.
“The headline of this study is that we can probably get a lot of information about life by studying death,” Noble adds.