Zombie Genes: Why Do Mysterious Genes Come Alive After We Die

There more we learn about human death the stranger and
creepier it gets. It’s widely known that bodies can move and twitch after
death, but did you know it can happen for up to a year?

Recent studies show that for a few moments after cardiac arrest, we know that we’ve died. That has to be a really freaky experience.

Doctor:                 “The patient has died.”

Patient:                “Oh crap, I’m dead.”

[Fade to eternal darkness.]

Some cells fight to stay alive for days, even weeks, after we’ve expired.

“It’s like an astronaut in deep space who suddenly gets silence on the radio and frantically beams signals home to Earth, unaware that a nuclear holocaust has wiped out everything she holds dear,” Stephanie Pappas writes in “Death is Weirder Than You think.”

Now, it’s believed that after we die “zombie genes” inside the body come to life for up to a day after cardiac arrest.

Peter Noble, a former professor at the University of Alabama, and his colleagues at the University of Washington came upon the discovery by accident while analyzing the tissues of a recently-deceased zebrafish.

The team was studying a technique for measuring gene activity and found that after the fish had died, about 1% of its genes mysteriously turned on.

That was “the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen,” Noble said, according to Pappas.

The researchers wrote off the idea immediately because no one had heard of post-mortem genetic activity before. But after more tests on fish and mice, they discovered that genes can activate in the hours or even days after an animal has died.

Noble and his team’s findings were bolstered by a study out of Barcelona that had similar results.

“There is a reaction by the cells to the death of the individual,” Professor Roderic Guigó, a computational biologist at the Barcelona Institute for Science and Technology told the BBC. “We see some pathways, some genes, that are activated, and this means that sometime after death there is still some activity at the level of transcription.”

The genes that are activated post-mortem don’t make much sense.

EGR3, a gene that promotes growth, expresses itself after death. What would do to help the recently-deceased?

CXCL2 which codes for a signaling protein that calls white blood cells to the site of inflammation or infection also unnecessarily expresses itself. “Sorry genes the time for healing was BEFORE I died.”

In a strange feat of biology,  a gene that tells cells to create a spinal column comes to live after we’ve died. Not sure what a corpse will do with a second spine.

Although it’s a mystery as to why certain genes express themselves
after death, Guigó has a theory.

“I would guess that one of the major changes is due to
the cessation of flow of blood, therefore I would say probably the main
environmental change is hypoxia, the lack of oxygen, but I don’t have the proof
for this,” he said.

These findings create even more questions about the mystery of human death. “Death doesn’t mean that all the billions of cells in our bodies stop working, it just means that they stop working together,” Kate Golembiewski writes in Discover Magazine.

The more we learn about death, the more it appears that our bodies do not die all at once. This has inspired Noble to create a broader definition of what it means to die.

“I call it the twilight of death, going from the organism’s death as a whole versus what happens to individual cells,” Noble said according to Discover Magazine. “Where the breakdown between cells and the whole functioning organism? That’s a big question. No one knows.”

Photo credit: Majcot, Pixabay, Wikipedia, The Barcelona Institute of Science and Technology.

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