It turns out, life and death isn't so much a flick of the switch as it is a long wave goodbye.
And it's accompanied by a fluorescent blue light.
At least, that's what scientists at the Institute of Health Aging in London have concluded after watching the trail of destruction on a cellular level.
“We’ve identified a chemical pathway of self-destruction that propagates cell death in worms, which we see as this glowing blue fluorescence traveling through the body," says Professor David Gems, who led the British study. "It’s like a blue grim reaper, tracking death as it spreads throughout the organism until all life is extinguished.”
The bright blue hue, as seen under a microscope, is actually necrosis — and more specifically, a molecule called anthranilic acid.
Published this week in the science journal, PLoS Biology, the study suggests this "cascade of cell death" washes over an organism, cell by cell, until the entire individual goes dark.
There is, however, a light at the end of this tunnel.
Scientists say they may be able to hold off the Blue Reaper — essentially halting the biochemical process that washes over cells.
In effect, a 'dying' individual may be revived by checking that trail of cellular self-destruction, notably when it's caused by a stress, such as an infection.
Because an entire organism doesn't just perish all at once, scientists can look for ways to fortify, or re-commission dying cells.
At the very least, by blocking the 'death path, researchers found they could delay total system shutdown.
The study also casts fresh light on aging — which is essentially, a gradual, lifelong process of cell deaths.
“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,” Gems said. “This suggests that aging causes death by a number of processes acting in parallel.”
"The findings," he adds, "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.”