A new study in the journal PLOS Biology has revealed that death occurs more slowly than scientists previously thought, and under certain circumstances it could be delayed.
Because of the ethical and logistical complications of studying human death (read: people don’t want to die), researchers looked at worms to understand the chemical processes involved.
What the scientists discovered was that as a worm died, it whole body did not die all at once. Under stress from sickness or trauma, individual cells died one by one, leaving behind debris that triggered a chain reaction which destroyed even more cells. As the cells collapsed, they emitted a fluorescent blue light the scientists could use to track the spread of death throughout the worm’s body.
“We’ve identified a chemical pathway of self-destruction that propagates cell death in worms, which we see as this glowing blue fluorescence traveling through the body,” the study’s lead author, David Gems from the Institute of Health Aging at University College London, told Discovery News. “It’s like a blue grim reaper, tracking death as it spreads throughout the organism until all life is extinguished.”
Scientists discovered that when they blocked that chemical pathway, they could delay the spread of cellular damage caused by trauma. They could not, however, prevent the damaging effects of old age.
“This suggests that aging causes death by a number of processes acting in parallel,” Gems said. “The findings cast doubt on the theory that aging is simply a consequence of an accumulation of molecular damage. We need to focus on the biological events that occur during aging and death to properly understand how we might be able to interrupt these processes.”