Death and Life – Gustav Klimt

“The boundaries, which divide Life from Death, are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?”

Edgar Allan Poe

Most probably nothing is more difficult than tracing the boundaries dividing Life from Death. Nevertheless, scientifically speaking, death occurs when all biological processes stop and the “human machinery” is shut down. However, a research group led by the microbiologist Peter Noble of the University of Washington, Seattle, discovered that some genes remain turned on days after animals die. A systematic analysis of zebrafish and mice tissues 2 or 4 days post mortem respectively, demonstrated that hundreds of genes were increased: among these, genes involved in stress, immune system activation and inflammation. But there is a finding even more surprising that may have deep implications not only in Science but also in the Philosophical field. Quo

Ouroboros – The snake devouring its own tail, is the alchemical symbol of the Eternal Return

ting Peter Noble: “What’s jaw-dropping is that developmental genes are turned on after death”. It can be speculated that a dead body might resemble conditions present during embryo life, which, in turn, reawake developmental genes expression. As in the philosophic view of the “Eternal return”, life goes back to its basis when it ends.


But which are the scientific implications of this discovery?

First of all it can revolutionize the field of organ transplant. Indeed, gene activation signature can be useful not only to predict a-priori the quality of a transplant, but also to warn against possible onset of transplant-related tumors. Indeed, some of the post-mortem activated genes are well known oncogenes and this finding could explain why patients who receive transplanted organs from the recently departed have a higher risk of cancer.

Another application is in the forensic field: in the future we might be able to exactly determine the time of decease by looking at gene activation pattern. In this way, detectives will be able to better retrace all the events preceding a crime and stop relying on vague hints such as last telephone calls or text messages.

Lastly, a deep understanding of the gene signatures activated post-mortem can also tell us a lot about those networks which normally keeps all our functions. “The headline of this study is that we can probably get a lot of information about life by studying death” concluded Noble.


Davide Mangani