I did some quick research on DNA and I know it can be damaged by different sorts of mutagens. I also know that this kind of damage can lead to cancer. Though I'm not entirely sure of where exactly it can happen, it seems to me that it could happen to any kind of cell.

It also contains instructions for the development and overall functions the the said cell. Knowing that, if, supposedly, someone got this kind of damage on ALL of his cells, at the same time, assuming it could range from a slight damage to a great mess-up randomly, could he survive for some time while his body goes from healthy to wtf?

I'm thinking about a disaster kind of thing, likely involving electromagnetic radiation. But that's not really the focus of the question.

I know different kind of cells have a different turnover times, but I don't know how exactly would this affect their body, given a time X. I also don't know how it would affect the current cells of this human being.

Just to be more clear, the goal of this is to figure out how fast would someone die if something messed up his entire genetic code simultaneously. Would he be able to survive at least a month? A year, depending on what changed on his genes?

What would be the effects? I think this would be the equivalent of having cancer on all one's cells, am I correct?

Oh, I'm also assuming he could get the best kind of treatment there is on earth. That could include experimental types of treatments that, despite not being globally or comercially used nowadays, could potentially help him get through his diseases. Take nowadays as 2015, just for reference.

  • $\begingroup$ ALL the DNA*in EVERY cell? $\endgroup$
    – Jax
    Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 16:18
  • $\begingroup$ Yes. I mean in a way that no matter what cell you tried to clone from him, none could generate something with his same original DNA. I think I should put reality-check on this as well, because I have no clue that this is even possible. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 16:22
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    $\begingroup$ It seems to me that scrambling his entire genetic code would cause almost instantaneous mass organ failure, since your characters gene controls how his organs work. Without the genes to tell the cells how to behave, the cells are little more than empty shells. An analogy (not sure how accurate it is) would be shooting the driver of a car. At best the car would eventually come to a stop. At worst the car would crash and kill all the other occupants. $\endgroup$
    – Jax
    Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 16:31
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    $\begingroup$ You say in the comments below that you want enough DNA damage that he cannot create a clone of himself (assuming that cloning technology exists). If the damage is random, that would definitely require enough damage to kill him in hours. But if the damage can be specific (e.g. an advanced bioweapon), it could destroy parts of the genome crucial to development, but which an adult doesn't need for survival. Would that do? $\endgroup$
    – Beta
    Commented Mar 18, 2015 at 3:45
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    $\begingroup$ I sincerely hope your need to know is driven purely by the spirit of curiosity. Writing questions on stackexchange is a rotten way to spend your last minutes. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 17, 2016 at 12:57

5 Answers 5


Well that is actually what happens when you get a big dose of radiation. Wikipedia has a pretty nice page for that http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acute_radiation_syndrome.

The main point is that damaging a cell's DNA usually does not lead to cancer. It usually leads to the death of the cell. Therefore if you damage all the DNA, too many cells will die and you will die pretty quickly.

In order to have someone develop cancer all over their body, what you need is actually very small doses of radiation, but over a long period of time. This way the dead cells could be replaced by healthy ones, keeping you alive long enough so that the cancerous ones have time to multiply.

  • $\begingroup$ Exactly this. DNA serves as the instruction manual for building all of the proteins that a cell requires in order to operate and survive. If you severely damage said instruction manual, the cell no longer has the ability to make the things it needs to maintain itself (either the instructions are lost, of the are corrupted and wrong), and will quickly break down and die. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 18:38
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    $\begingroup$ The cells would also not be able to divide to create new cells. So even if the cells could could go on for a while any cell death by other causes would cause tissue to degrade as no new cells would be produced. $\endgroup$
    – Dijkgraaf
    Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 23:10
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    $\begingroup$ @Dijkgraaf sounds too much like (what would really happen to) zombies, actually. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 18, 2015 at 2:32
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    $\begingroup$ After thinking about it for a little while, I think that destroying or scrambling all of the DNA would actually lead to the exact opposite of cancer: instead of uncontrolled cell growth, you would get uncontrolled cell death. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 18, 2015 at 12:51

According to this phys.org article most proteins have a half-life on the order of days. Without DNA, you lose the ability to replicate proteins, and your cellular structure would literally fall apart.

You would notice total DNA loss far before a day had passed, as the shortest-lived proteins degraded, causing failure of critical chemical pathways in your body. My guess is that you would go through the symptoms of acute radiation poisoning and die in just minutes to hours.

This is sort of like asking how far your car can go if all its bolts disappear. You will be held together for a little while by friction, but you will die, and fast.


One of the shortest-lived proteins in the body is ornithine decarboxylase, which forms an important step in removing ammonia from the body. It has a half life of only 20 minutes. In less than an hour, your character would suffer from acute ornithine transcarbamylase deficiency. Ammonia would quickly build up to a level toxic to the brain and kill him (or her). Symptoms include headaches, nausea and vomiting, ataxia and other cognitive impairments, loss of motor function, and seizures.

If you experience any of these symptoms...

... don't bother calling your doctor. No known or theorized medical technique can replace a person's entire genome, especially with no reference point as to where DNA needs to be added to the cells. The only solution I can think of is to have some kind of nanomachine swarm deliver fresh DNA to your cells (only the ones you want to keep). Even if you could do this today, if it took more than a half-hour or so it would be too late anyway; but by the point nanotechnology advances that far, reversing the extensive damage to your body should also be possible.

  • $\begingroup$ Great answer with actual research! Also, by the time nanotechnology got this far, it is probably easier to just transcribe your memory and thought process into an artificial organism than to repair your DNA. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 20, 2015 at 0:31
  • $\begingroup$ @DesmondZhou Usually I handwave that possibility away by saying that the brain is to delicate to read (it makes things too easy for my characters =P), but it probably is a better solution. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 20, 2015 at 0:43
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    $\begingroup$ From reading about OTC, it looks like treatment with sodium benzoate or dialysis would stave off immediate damage. Assuming our character got that, what's next on the list of expected failures? $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 4, 2015 at 16:39

Not long.

This is part of what happens in acute radiation syndrome. Basically your character would feel really terrible immediately. Over the next couple hours they would become sicker and sicker.

Within one day to two weeks, they would be dead.


That would pretty much kill him instantly. Radiation poisoning is basically the same kind of damage and severe radiation poisoning can kill you quickly. How long someone lasts and their chance of recovery has to do with the total amount of damage done.

  • $\begingroup$ Short, sweet and to the point. $\endgroup$
    – Jax
    Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 18:18

From a biological perspective you could take a look at Amatoxin this particular toxin is found in some poisonous mushrooms (including my favorite mushroom based on name: Destroying Angel)

Amatoxin blocks your bodies ability to repair/rebuild cells. The physiological reasons for this are complicated and you can read more else where; however the damage to cells by amatoxin closely mimics the damage dealt by radiation. Cells can't properly repair damage or replicate after exposure and thus as cells start to die out bodily function begins to degrade.

Unlike severe radiation damage amatoxin does have treatments listed that basically try to stabilize the body while it slowly repairs the damage.

  • $\begingroup$ Actually I'd like the opposite: the damage without the effects. I want some sort of way to get rid of human DNA so a person can't make a healthy clone of himself. The reason why I want him to live during some time is so he has enough time to figure out what's going on before dying. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 19:02
  • $\begingroup$ Forgot to mention in the answer but the effects of ingesting amatoxin take about 5 to 24 hours hours to manifest. Once ingested the toxins start going to work, however you don't start to feel the ill effects until later (once cells start to die with our replacements, etc.) $\endgroup$
    – Culyx
    Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 19:07
  • $\begingroup$ If you just want to prevent a healthy clone there are much less dramatic ways to achieve that. Basically, all you would need is virulent retrovirus (i.e. a fast acting virus that changes the victim's DNA) which destroys genes which are critical to embryonic development but are not expressed in adulthood. $\endgroup$
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Oct 21, 2016 at 4:12

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