Zombie Genes

Zebrafish like this one may have genes that can survive up to four days after death. By Azul (Own work) [Copyrighted free use], via Wikimedia Commons

Zebrafish like this one may have genes that can survive up to four days after death. By Azul (Own work) [Copyrighted free use], via Wikimedia Commons

Do genes just shut off after death, the way a car engine quits running as soon as it’s out of gas? New studies suggest some genes don’t die right away, and some mysteriously turn on.

So why am I excited about this as a sci-fi writer? One story I worked on in the past features a rare gene that heals and rejuvenates characters when they die. I imagined the gene would simply release stem cells to fix damage done during a character’s death. Recently, a more complex post-death scenario for my fictional characters is starting to appear.

A few studies over the years have indirectly noted that some genes in human organs remain active after death for a short period.

A couple of recent studies, currently being peer reviewed, turned it’s focus directly to what happens to cells in the days following death.

The studies looked at mouse and zebra fish cells and examined upregulating genes, genes that increase a cellular component. Researchers found that there are hundreds of genes that remain active, or even ramp up, AFTER death.

The genes that remain active after death often serve a positive function. Like assisting the immune system or suppressing stress.For the sake of my novel, it’s a great way to create a state following death that could allow for healing to occur.

It makes sense that these helpful responses occur after a loss of stability in the body and the genes stay active even after death, yet some surprising results sprang up too.

Some genes which promote cancer turned on and stayed active. Could this account for the higher risk of cancer among organ donor recipients?

A number of the genes that turned on, had been off for a very long time. Developmental genes that turn off after embryonic development, in some instances turned back on. This was a fun concept to play with since it might account for the rejuvenation associated with my fictional gene in my story.

But in the real world, the activation of these genes would probably never be enough to bring someone back to life.

For one thing, the zombie genes are generally only active for 24 hours before tapering off. Only a few genes lasted longer, in a rare case, four days in the zebra fish, and the human brain is destroyed when deprived of oxygen for even a few minutes, resulting in death.

Further, the studies are still under peer review and have not used human tissues. My clever plot twist could turn out to be just a fanciful assumption. Yet that is the beauty of both science and science fiction, they move from impossibility to impossibility, each more impossible than the last, but sometimes they reveal those impossibilities- weren’t.


“Undead” genes come alive days after life ends


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