Cells continue to function after death Video

Gene breakthrough could help pinpoint time of death for murder victims

Worldwide team of scientists led by Roderic Guigó at the Centre for Genomic Regulation in Barcelona showed that changes in gene expression in different tissues triggered by death can be used to predict the time of death of an individual.

An global team of scientists revealed that some genes actually become more active after death, the BBC reports.

Inside the cells of our bodies, life plays out under the powerful influence of our genes; their outputs controlled by a range of internal and external triggers. GTEx was created to sample as many tissues as possible from a large number of individuals in order to understand the causal effects of genes and variants, and which tissues contribute to predisposition to disease.

According to Science, the breakthrough was made by computational biologist Roderic Guigó from the Centre for Genomic Regulation in Barcelona, who is part of a consortium of geneticists and molecular biologists trying to understand how the body makes different cells perform different functions. Obtaining samples for studies is quite hard - blood is the easiest kind to get.

Whilst studies of post-mortem samples can provide important insights into the body's inner workings, it isn't clear if these samples truly represent what goes on during life.

Therefore, scientists rely on other available samples such as tissues and organs removed after death.

The other confounding factor is that samples are rarely taken immediately after death, instead a body is stored until post-mortem examination and sampling can take place and its impact is unclear. The article notes that gene activity might be good at pinpointing time of death in the first 24 hours.

And this decay might affect proper interpretation of transcriptomics data.

In fact, how the body responds to death is quite tissue-specific, with the samples showing that while more than 600 muscle genes showed a quick increase or decrease in activity after death, the same was not seen in brain tissue, for example.

"The reaction to the death of the living being is very tissue particular", Guigó tells Science. The scientists believe it's because of the lack of oxygen. "This information helps us to better understand variation and also it allows us to identify the transcriptional events triggered by death in an organism", adds Pedro G. Ferreira, CRG Alumnus now at the Institute of Molecular Pathology and Immunology, University of Porto in Portugal.

This might prove crucial in future criminal investigations, the researchers suggest.

Notwithstanding holding data about time of death, Guigó tells Science, "changes in gene articulation may likewise convey the marks of the reason for death". "It requires further investigation, longer post-mortem intervals, not only 24 hours, the age of the individual, the cause of death - all of these will need to be taken into account if we are to convert this into a useful tool".

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