Genes could record forensic clues to time of death

body in morgue
FORENSIC LENS A new approach to determining a body’s time of death looks for patterns in genes that are active after death.

Dying, it turns out, is not like flipping a switch. Genes keep working for a while after a person dies, and scientists have used that activity in the lab to pinpoint time of death to within about nine minutes.

During the first 24 hours after death, genetic changes kick in across various human tissues, creating patterns of activity that can be used to roughly predict when someone died, researchers report February 13 in Nature Communications.

“This is really cool, just from a biological discovery standpoint,” says microbial ecologist Jennifer DeBruyn of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville who was not part of the study. “What do our cells do after we die, and what actually is death?”

What has become clear is that death isn’t the immediate end for genes. Some mouse and zebrafish genes remain active for up to four days after the animals die, scientists reported in 2017 in Open Biology.

Some human body tissues show greater levels of gene activity shortly after death than others, a new study finds. Here, the number of genes that changed detectably after death is shown for a subset of tested tissue type.

P.G. Ferreira et al/Nature Communications 2018

In the new work, researchers examined changes in DNA’s chemical cousin, RNA. “There’s been a dogma that RNA is a weak, unstable molecule,” says Tom Gilbert, a geneticist at the Natural History Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen who has studied postmortem genetics. “So people always assumed that DNA might survive after death, but RNA would be gone.”

But recent research has found that RNA can be surprisingly stable, and some genes in our DNA even…

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