In an eerie discovery, we've found that dying worms emit an intense, blue glow that begins in their intestines before radiating outward into their entire bodies. Studying this "death fluorescence" allows researchers to understand how age-related death works in humans — and possibly, pathways to slowing it.
You can see footage of the glowing death spiral in the video above. The worm's body goes through what the researchers call a "necrotic cascade," where death travels through the body through calcium signaling between cells. Knowing how death travels through the body, the chemical signals it uses, can help future researchers identify ways of slowing or even preventing death.
Professor David Gems from the Institute of Health Ageing at UCL, who led the study, said in a release:
We've identified a chemical pathway of self-destruction that propagates 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 aging causes death by a number of processes acting in parallel . . . Together the findings cast doubt on the theory that aging is simply a consequence of an accumulation of molecular damage. We need to focus on the biological events that occur during aging and death to properly understand how we might be able to interrupt these processes.
In other words, death by aging isn't just caused by your body slowly decaying. It's actually the result of many genetic factors, as well as chemical signals that pass between cells. Humans may not glow blue as we die, but our cells do send out chemical signals like those we can see in worms. Perhaps one day we'll be able to untangle the chemical pathway to death, and prevent that chilling necrotic cascade from overtaking our bodies before we are ready to die.
Read the full scientific paper about death fluorescence at PLoS Biology