Thanatotranscriptome: genes actively expressed after organismal death
Alexander E Pozhitkov, Rafik Neme, Tomislav Domazet-Loso, Brian Leroux, Shivani Soni, Diethard Tautz, Peter Anthony Noble
This article is a preprint and has not been peer-reviewed
A continuing enigma in the study of biological systems is what happens to highly ordered structures, far from equilibrium, when their regulatory systems suddenly become disabled. In life, genetic and epigenetic networks precisely coordinate the expression of genes -- but in death, it is not known if gene expression diminishes gradually or abruptly stops or if specific genes are involved. We investigated the unwinding of the clock by identifying upregulated genes, assessing their functions, and comparing their transcriptional profiles through postmortem time in two species, mouse and zebrafish. We found transcriptional abundance profiles of 1,063 genes were significantly changed after death of healthy adult animals in a time series spanning from life to 48 or 96 h postmortem. Ordination plots revealed non-random patterns in profiles by time. While most thanatotranscriptome (thanatos-, Greek defn. death) transcript levels increased within 0.5 h postmortem, some increased only at 24 and 48 h. Functional characterization of the most abundant transcripts revealed the following categories: stress, immunity, inflammation, apoptosis, transport, development, epigenetic regulation, and cancer. The increase of transcript abundance was presumably due to thermodynamic and kinetic controls encountered such as the activation of epigenetic modification genes responsible for unraveling the nucleosomes, which enabled transcription of previously silenced genes (e.g., development genes). The fact that new molecules were synthesized at 48 to 96 h postmortem suggests sufficient energy and resources to maintain self-organizing processes. A step-wise shutdown occurs in organismal death that is manifested by the apparent upregulation of genes with various abundance maxima and durations. The results are of significance to transplantology and molecular biology.
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