Our genes contain all the information about the body. A new study from the Center for Genomic Regulation (CRG) in Barcelona, Spain points out that studying genes can predict the person’s time of death. They studied the gene activity that occurs in the tissue after death and found patterns that could be traced back to the time of death.
The results came from extensive sample analysis and machine learning. CRG computational biologist Roderic Guigó and his colleagues took 39 tissue samples from a pool of 9,000 donors in order to determine the changes in gene activity after death. Information like the donor’s time of death and when the samples were preserved was provided.
“The response to the death of the organism is quite tissue-specific,” Guigó told Science. After death, over 600 muscle genes either quickly increased or decreased activity. Meanwhile, there was minimal change in gene activity in the brain or spleen.
The team backtracked to the time of death using the unique patterns of change in each tissue. They also developed a machine learning model to measure how accurate such a prediction could be. The machine learning model analyzed the gene activity patterns of 399 people.
This software was used to predict the time of death in 129 cases. It showed that majority of the changes in gene activity happen between 7 and 14 hours after death. A simple example is blood. Decreased gene activity in blood involved in DNA production, immune response and the rate of metabolism can help identify the time of death.
“At this point, our program is an academic exercise,” Guigó told Science and added that it might even be possible for changes in gene expression to provide signatures indicating the cause of death. The correct estimation of time of death would be a huge help in forensic analysis. But, if it can discover the cause of death too, then that would definitely make the number of unsolved criminal cases go down.
We will have to make do with the time of death for now but as scientists continue studying genes, we might one day know much more.