A recent study is providing new support for an old adage: "death is only the beginning." According to the research, some cells in the body fight to live long after the organism dies.
In some cases, cell activity actually increases following death. The research suggests that the death of a living organism is a multi-step process that continues long after the final heartbeat; findings from this research could have implications for everything from cancer research to life extension.
The study, now published online in the journal Open Biology, revealed just how many cells remain alive and thriving after an organism’s death. For example, stem cells in particular were found to be most active after death, fighting to stay alive and attempting to repair themselves for days, and in some cases weeks, after death. In addition, a process known as gene transcription, that Seeker explained as a cellular behavior associated with stress, immunity, inflammation,and cancer, also increased following death. Although the research was conducted on zebrafish and mice, they believe the same cellular activity could be observed in all living creatures.
“Not all cells are 'dead' when an organism dies," senior author Peter Noble told Seeker. "Different cell types have different life spans, generation times and resilience to extreme stress."
The fascinating discovery has been dubbed the “Twilight of Death,” and refers to the time period between death and decomposition where not all of the body’s cells are yet dead. The study researchers noted that their findings suggest death is more like a slow shutdown process and not the simple off-switch many imagine it to be. What’s more, better understanding of what happens when the body dies could lead to medical interventions aimed at delaying this process.
Not only does this research help us better understand how a body dies, (and perhaps how to delay this process), but it could also have real-life implications for organ transplant. Past research has suggested that patients have increased chances of developing cancer after they receive an organ transplant. For example, a 2011 study from the National Institutes of Health, found that U.S. organ transplant recipients had a high risk for develop 32 different types of cancer. The highest risks being non-Hodgkin lymphoma (14.1 percent of all cancers in transplant recipients), lung cancer (12.6 percent), liver cancer (8.7 percent), and kidney cancer (7.1 percent).
Although the reason for this remains unclear, the new study suggests it may be connected to the increased cellular activity observed in this “Twilight of Death.” What’s more, Noble suggested that there may even be something we can do about this, and proposed that prescreening transplant organs for increased cancer gene transcripts could help lower this risk.
Source: Pozhitkov AE, Neme R, Domazet-Lošo T, et al. Tracing the dynamics of gene transcripts after organismal death. Open Biology. 2017