Gene expression in the twilight of death: The increase of thousands of transcripts has implications to transplantation, cancer, and forensic research

Academic Article


  • After a vertebrate dies, many of its organ systems, tissues, and cells remain functional while its body no longer works as a whole. We define this state as the “twilight of death” − the transition from a living body to a decomposed corpse. We claim that the study of the twilight of death is important to ethical, legal and medical science. We examined gene expression at the twilight of death in the zebrafish and mouse reaching the conclusion that apparently thousands of transcripts significantly increase in abundance from life to several hours/days postmortem relative to live controls. Transcript dynamics of different genes provided “proof-of-principle” that models accurately predict an individual's elapsed-time-of-death (i.e. postmortem interval). While many transcripts were associated with survival and stress compensation, others were associated with epigenetic factors, developmental control, and cancer. Future studies are needed to determine whether the high incidence of cancer in transplant recipients is due to the postmortem processes in donor organs.
  • Authors

    Published In

  • BioEssays  Journal
  • Digital Object Identifier (doi)

    Author List

  • Pozhitkov AE; Noble PA
  • Volume

  • 39
  • Issue

  • 9