Somewhere along the line in Vietnam, I heard a guy say, "Dead is as old as you can get." It's not like we sat around obsessing about dying, but the topic would come up, often after a particularly nasty rocket or mortar attack. The idea of reaching a ripe old age was not something we worried about. No young person ever does. But when you get to my age, the topic assumes a degree of relevance.
Like most, I hope to die in my sleep. But how, exactly, does one die a peaceful death? Turns out science really doesn't really understand much about how an organism ... well, dies. They know a lot about how individual cells die, but the process by which death moves through the entire body is still something of a mystery. Enter the lowly worm.
Scientists at the University College London have reported that when a worm dies, a wave of blue fluorescence spreads rapidly along the intestinal gut. Doesn't matter how old the worm is. Doesn't matter if it is a peaceful or violent death. The same blue wave is detected in a "striking and rapid burst" at death.
This blue wave of death -- the authors call it a death wave that accompanies the cell death cascade ... ouch! -- is composed of anthranilic acid glucosyl esters derived from tryptophan. Don't ask what that means, because I haven't got a clue, although I have heard of tryptophan. I recall hearing about how that's the stuff that makes you so sleepy after that big Thanksgiving turkey dinner. Hmm.
Not to worry. It turns out he linkage between tryptophan and post-turkey dinner drowsiness has been disproven, but tryptophan is a key ingredient of serotonin, a brain chemical that promotes feelings of feelings of calm, relaxation ... and sleepiness. So now I have this image of the death of a worm as a beautiful blue wave of calm and peaceful feelings carrying it out on the last tide. I could live with that.
If this much care is taken with worms, can we expect anything less? I hope not. It may be that death does have mercy after all.
The Last Wave