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Future CSIs might determine time of death from genes

A police officer unwinds tape that reads "police line do not cross"
A police officer at a car crash in Texas (Robert Daemmrich Photography Inc/Corbis via Getty Images)

Genes may contain a living record of your life — or, the end of your life. In a paper published Tuesday in Nature Communications, scientists describe a number of genes that change the way they're expressed after death.

Why it matters: In the future, it's possible the patterns these scientists found could be used to precisely determine someone's time of death.

What's new: Scientists had already identified a number of genes that are turned on at the moment of death. In the new study, researchers:

  • Looked for mRNA, or messenger RNA, which is present when genes are turned on, in 9000 samples from 36 different types of human tissues. The genes in muscle tissue, for example, were extremely active after death. Others, like spleen genes, were less so.
  • They searched for patterns in those genes and input the dataset into a machine learning algorithm that then determined the genetic history and time of death of 399 individuals.
  • Then, they gave the AI mRNA data from 129 other people to see if it could predict their time of death.

What they found: The algorithm could successfully approximate time of death within about 9 minutes. However, it was most accurate within the first few hours after death.

Yes, but conditions in the lab might not be as ideal as conditions at a crime scene. It's likely that if this technique is used, it will be in conjunction with other traditional ways for estimating time of death.