Tracking the Reaper’s Progress
A new study has visualized the process of death - in worms, that is. Published yesterday in PloS Biology and sponsored by the Wellcome Trust and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the study is part of a body of work from researchers at the Institute of Health and Aging at University College London who hope to identify the genes implicated in the aging process in order to one day increase longevity in humans.
The study identified a “chemical pathway of self-destruction that propagates cell death in worms,” said lead researcher David Gems in a press release. The pathway is seen as a “glowing blue fluorescence traveling through the body. It’s like a blue grim reaper, tracking death as it spreads throughout the organism until all life is extinguished,” he explains.
The researchers found that by blocking this pathway, they were able to delay death only when it was caused by stress such as infection. Blocking the pathway had no effect in delaying deaths caused by old age, which “suggests that aging causes death by a number of processes acting in parallel,” says Gems.
The impetus of the work isn’t to stop death, but to identify the genes responsible for aging in order to increase the lifespan of humans. Worms are a useful organism to use for this because they are simple, but also have genes in common with mammals such as mice. Because of this, the researchers believe the work they are doing in worms could translate to humans.
You can learn more about their work in the short video below, courtesy of the Wellcome Trust.
The spread of death is easily visualized in worms because they have naturally-present fluorescent biomarkers. Shining a UV light on the organism produces the blue tone that can be seen in the photos above.
Images courtesy of David Gems, UCL.