While death strips away our consciousness, at least on the physical plane, it apparently doesn’t strip our body’s cell function. Researchers have proven that post-mortem genetic expression can last for at least two days. By using this activity, scientists were even able to pinpoint the time of death within about nine minutes.
The study, published in the journal, Nature Communications, states that the genetic changes which occur after somebody dies can create patterns of activity. These patterns could then be used to roughly predict that person’s time of death.
All biological functions are directly linked to genetic processes. Genes and genetic activity fall into two categories of code, DNA, and RNA.
RNA interprets the instructions given by the DNA, converting them into biological functions. Some of the RNA directly manages the processes that occur within our cells. RNA also provides the coded instructions for the proteins carrying out a number of cellular functions. By analyzing these instructions, called transcriptomics, scientists were able to shed light on how cells can make life possible.
In the new study, an international team of researchers examined the changes that occur in RNA after death.
“There’s been a dogma that RNA is a weak, unstable molecule,” notes Tom Gilbert, a geneticist at the Natural History Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen who has studied post-mortem genetics. “ So people always assumed that DNA might survive after death, but RNA would be gone.”
Professor Gilbert said that the body does not require continuous brain activity for gene expression to continue performing. According to him, these molecular processes are able to continue until the required enzymes and chemical components run out.
The researchers looked at gene activity and degradation in 36 types of human tissue, including the brain, lungs, and skin. They collected tissue samples from more than 500 donors who had been dead for 29 hours.
While analyzing the tissue samples, scientists found that post-mortem gene activity varied in each tissue. The scientists then used a computer to search for patterns in this process. They claim that four tissues taken together could pinpoint a reliable time of death. In this case, they took samples from subcutaneous fat, thyroid, lung, and skin exposed to the sun.
On the basis of these results, the scientists then developed an algorithm which could estimate the time of death within approximately nine minutes.
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