Rigor Mortis in Worms Offers New Insight into Death

Study published on March 6, 2018, reveals that a dying worm experiences rigor mortis early in the death process, unlike humans.

A group of researchers from the UCL and Washington University, studied a phenomenon in worms called rigor mortis, which occurs during early stage of their death, rather than after the main event as seen in humans.

This is the first study on rigor mortis in worms and provides new insight into the process of organismal death. Death is legally known as the moment the heart ceases to beat, or the brain stops functioning. Biologically, death is associated with several events that occur long before death and way after a person is declared dead.

The team studied C. elegans to discover various mechanisms involved in the death of multicellular organisms, particularly at old age.

“Cell death has been widely studied but much less is known about death of whole organisms, how it happens, what triggers it, and when it begins and ends. But it’s extremely important for understanding fatal diseases in humans, especially those caused by ageing,” said Professor David Gems (UCL Institute of Healthy Ageing), who led the team of researchers.

The new study shows how death spreads through organisms via the process of cellular necrosis. In C. elegans, death first occurs in the muscle hypercontraction and rigor mortis, further spreading to the intestine. This results in a wave of blue death fluorescence that renders the passage of death through the organism visible.

“Discovering rigor mortis in worms is exciting as it highlights a key step in the chain of events leading from healthy adulthood to death from old age. It helps us to understand death in humans, and perhaps in the future to prevent death in mortally ill patients,” concluded Professor Gems.

Further research would help understand the death process better, with the potential to enable the development of various therapies to help slow down the process in humans.

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