A nematode worm glows as it nears death in this screenshot from a YouTube video showing the work of researchers in London.
Last year, researchers at University College London's Institute of Healthy Ageing were looking through their microscopes when they saw something amazing.
David Gems, professor of biogerentology, was part of the team looking for answers to big questions about human aging in small, squishy little creatures nearing the end of their lives. Their official name: Caenorhabditis elegans. You and I know them as worms. As they neared the end of their life, the tiny worms moved more and more slowly.
"Suddenly there appears a sort of ghostly blue fluorescence," Gems tells Jacki Lyden, host of weekends on All Things Considered. "And then it spreads in a kind of flashing wave from the front end to the back end. ... It's really quite a sort of eerie phenomenon because it's reminiscent of the soul departing the worm."
Do worms have souls? That's a question for another time. But what the researchers were really seeing was a blue, fluorescent dye that appears as worms expire. Scientists had seen that before. But with the help of a time-lapse camera, Gems and his colleagues had front-row seats to a new, more morbid show: death. They published their findings July 23 in PLoS Biology.
"You can actually see it passing through the organism," says Gems.
Cell by cell, over the course of a few hours — or a few minutes, if the worm is under great duress — the chemical cascade of death advances. But, says Gems, interfering with that process by tinkering with genes has some pretty dramatic consequences.
"Because we can see death, it means we've been able to find ways of stopping death. It actually extends the life of the worm a little bit," he says. "If we can just figure out aging in one animal, we've got our foot in the door to a broader understanding of aging."
And that broader understanding could extend to our own species.
"In principle, you might be able to work out ways, for example, of where you have damaged tissue — from infection or injury or stroke — of stopping the death from spreading from the dead part to the live part," Gem says. "And in the end, if we can slow aging down, work out ways to intervene in aging, then we can protect against the whole spectrum of aging-related diseases."
An exciting prospect for the future of medicine. But doesn't the study of all this death and dying get a bit, well, depressing? We put the question to Gems.
"The thing which is depressing is when you're faced with something which is completely undefeatable," he says. "But when you work on the biology of aging, and you realize that aging is something that's plastic, that's changeable, then you're in the position of confronting really a terrible evil and having the chance to do something about it; I mean, that's quite the opposite of depressing. It's actually a very exciting challenge."