What is Autolysis? - Definition & Histology

Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

Dead things decompose so that they can be used by other organisms. One part of this process is autolysis, which occurs on the cellular level. Check out this lesson to learn about autolysis and how it plays a role in fields such as forensics and histology.

A Normal Breakdown

Dying is an important part of life because when things die, they decompose and return to the earth. In this way, they can fuel new life by returning the nutrients and molecules in their body to be used again. While you probably already know that this occurs, you might be surprised to learn that when a body dies, there is an organized process of decomposition that begins almost immediately. One part of this process is autolysis (auto = self and lysis = breakdown), which is cellular self-digestion. This self-destruction of cells occurs as endogenous or internal cellular enzymes (endo = inside and genous = originating from) are released and work to break down cellular material.

Everything that is living will eventually die and decompose, giving itself back to the earth
decomposing fruit

Influencing Factors

Because autolysis occurs after the organism dies, the changes that are seen are called postmortem for 'after death'. While the process of autolysis is an internal one, the rate at which it occurs can be influenced by different factors, both internal and external.

For example, warmer temperatures will speed up autolysis, while colder temperatures will slow it down. This means that a dead animal left in the heat will autolyze faster than one kept in a refrigerator. Similarly, a larger animal will autolyze more quickly than a smaller animal, because the internal body temperature will stay warmer longer than that of a smaller animal with less mass.

Additionally, different tissues inside the body, such as the liver, pancreas, and intestines, autolyze more rapidly because they have a greater amount of those self-digesting enzymes.

Autolysis & Histology

The rate of autolysis of an organism may not concern your daily activities very much, but if you study histology, the microscopic anatomy of plant and animal tissue, then you should be very interested in autolysis and the things that affect it. Histology is a field that analyzes biological tissues for disease diagnostics, forensic investigations (including autopsies), and even archeological history.

Forensics analysts need an understanding of autolysis when they are examining bodies and tissues
crime scene

To illustrate this point, I want you to imagine for a minute that you are investigating a crime. If you have a body that was discovered only hours after the person died, then you're going to get a much clearer picture than if that body was discovered after spending two weeks in a field out in the hot sun. If the cells and tissues are freshly deceased, they are going to paint a much clearer picture than the cells and tissues of a body that has been out in the sun for a while.

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