- In worms, the spread of death can be seen easily under a microscope as a wave of blue fluorescence travelling through its gut
- Researchers from Wellcome Trust likened spread of blue glow travelling through the worm’s body to that of the Grim Reaper, stalking death
- The research could prove to be a useful model for understanding death in people and perhaps even lead to an increase in life expectancy
British scientists have captured death spreading like a wave through the body of a worm, by studying the blue fluorescence that travels cell-to-cell until the whole organism is dead.
Researchers from the Wellcome Trust and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) likened the spread of the blue glow travelling through the worm’s body to that of the Grim Reaper, stalking death.
They believe that the research could eventually prove to be a useful model to understanding death in people and perhaps even lead to an increase in life expectancy.
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When individual cells die, they trigger a chemical chain reaction that leads to the breakdown of cell components and a build-up of molecular debris.
The molecular mechanisms of this are reasonably well understood at a cellular level but we know much less about how death spreads throughout an organism at the end of its life.
In worms, the spread of death can be seen easily under a microscope as a wave of blue fluorescence travelling through the gut of the worm.
The study, published in PLoS Biology, reveals that this fluorescence is caused by a cell death pathway called necrosis and its spread throughout the organism is dependent on calcium signalling.
Professor David Gems from the Institute of Health Ageing at University College London, who led the study, said: ‘We’ve identified a chemical pathway of self-destruction that propagate cell death in worms, which we see as this glowing blue fluorescence travelling through the body.
‘It’s like a blue Grim Reaper, tracking death as it spreads throughout the organism until all life is extinguished.
‘We found that when we blocked this pathway, we could delay death induced by a stress such as infection, but we couldn’t slow death from old age.
‘This suggests that ageing causes death by a number of processes acting in parallel.’
The mechanisms involved are similar to those that are active in mammals, confirming that the worm can provide a useful model to understand cell death in people.
The source of the blue fluorescence was previously thought to be a substance called lipofuscin, which emits light of a similar colour and has been linked to ageing because it accumulates with increasing molecular damage.
However, scientists now think another molecule called anthranilic acid is the source of the blue hue and the study shows that lipofuscin is not involved.
Professor Gems said: ‘Together the findings cast doubt on the theory that ageing is simply a consequence of an accumulation of molecular damage.
‘We need to focus on the biological events that occur during ageing and death to properly understand how we might be able to interrupt these processes.’