The clock is essentially the lock-step succession of bacterial changes that occur postmortem as bodies move through the decay process.
And while the researchers used mice for the new study, previous studies on the human microbiome – the estimated 100 trillion or so microbes that live on and in each of us – indicate there is good reason to believe similar microbial clocks are ticking away on human corpses, said Jessica Metcalf, a CU-Boulder postdoctoral researcher and first author on the study.
"While establishing time of death is a crucial piece of information for investigators in cases that involve bodies, existing techniques are not always reliable," said Metcalf of CU-Boulder's BioFrontiers Institute. "Our results provide a detailed understanding of the bacterial changes that occur as mouse corpses decompose, and we believe this method has the potential to be a complementary forensic tool for estimating time of death."
Currently, investigators use tools ranging from the timing of last text messages and corpse temperatures to insect infestations on bodies and "grave soil" analyses, with varying results, she said. And the more days that elapse following a person's demise, the more difficult it becomes to determine the time of death with any significant accuracy.
Using high-technology gene sequencing techniques on both bacteria and microbial eukaryotic organisms like fungi, nematodes and amoeba postmortem, the researchers were able to pinpoint time of mouse death after a 48-day period to within roughly four days. The results were even more accurate following an analysis at 34 days, correctly estimating the time of death within about three days, said Metcalf.
A paper on the subject was published Sept. 23 in the new online science and biomedical journal, eLIFE, a joint initiative of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Max Planck Society and the Wellcome Trust Fund. The study was funded by the National Institutes of Justice.
The researchers tracked microbial changes on the heads, torsos, body cavities and associated grave soil of 40 mice at eight different time points over the 48-day study. The stages after death include the "fresh" stage before decomposition, followed by "active decay" that includes bloating and subsequent body cavity rupture, followed by "advanced decay," said Chaminade University forensic scientist David Carter, a co-author on the study.
"At each time point that we sampled, we saw similar microbiome patterns on the individual mice and similar biochemical changes in the grave soil," said Laura Parfrey, a former CU-Boulder postdoctoral fellow and now a faculty member at the University of British Columbia who is a microbial and eukaryotic expert. "And although there were dramatic changes in the abundance and distribution of bacteria over the course of the study, we saw a surprising amount of consistency between individual mice microbes between the time points -- something we were hoping for."
As part of the project, the researchers also charted "blooms" of a common soil-dwelling nematode well known for consuming bacterial biomass that occurred at roughly the same time on individual mice during the decay period. "The nematodes seem to be responding to increases in bacterial biomass during the early decomposition process, an interesting finding from a community ecology standpoint," said Metcalf.
"This work shows that your microbiome is not just important while you're alive," said CU-Boulder Associate Professor Rob Knight, the corresponding study author who runs the lab where the experiments took place. "It might also be important after you're dead."
The research team is working closely with assistant professors Sibyl Bucheli and Aaron Linne of Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, home of the Southeast Texas Applied Forensic Science Facility, an outdoor human decomposition facility known popularly as a "body farm." The researchers are testing bacterial signatures of human cadavers over time to learn more about the process of human decomposition and how it is influenced by weather, seasons, animal scavenging and insect infestations.
The new study is one of more than a dozen papers authored or co-authored by CU-Boulder researchers published in the past several years on human microbiomes. One of the studies, led by Professor Noah Fierer, a co-author on the new study, brought to light another potential forensic tool -- microbial signatures left on computer keys and computer mice, an idea enthralling enough it was featured on a "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" television episode.
"This study establishes that a body's collection of microbial genomes provides a store of information about its history," said Knight, also an associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Early Career Scientist. "Future studies will let us understand how much of this information, both about events before death -- like diet, lifestyle and travel -- and after death can be recovered."
In addition to Metcalf, Fierer, Knight, Carter and Parfrey, other study authors included Antonio Gonzalez, Gail Ackerman, Greg Humphrey, Mathew Gebert, Will Van Treuren, Donna Berg Lyons and Kyle Keepers from CU-Boulder, former BioFrontiers doctoral student Dan Knights from the University of Minnesota, and Yan Go and James Bullard from Pacific Biosciences in Menlo Park, Calif. Keepers participated in the study as an undergraduate while Gonzalez, now a postdoctoral researcher, was a graduate student during the study.
"There is no single forensic tool that is useful in all scenarios, as all have some degree of uncertainty," said Metcalf. "But given our results and our experience with microbiomes, there is reason to believe we can get past some of this uncertainty and look toward this technique as a complementary method to better estimate time of death in humans."
Gene sequencing equipment for the study included machines from Illumina of San Diego and Pacific Biosciences of Menlo Park, Calif. The Illumina data were generated at CU-Boulder in the BioFrontiers Next Generation Sequencing Facility.
To access a copy of the paper visit http://dx.doi.org/10.7554/eLife.01104. For more information on the BioFrontiers Institute visit http://biofrontiers.colorado.edu.
Contact:Jessica Metcalf, 720-224-5522
Jessica Metcalf | EurekAlert!
The personality factor: How to foster the sharing of research data
06.09.2017 | ZBW – Leibniz-Informationszentrum Wirtschaft
Europe’s Demographic Future. Where the Regions Are Heading after a Decade of Crises
10.08.2017 | Berlin-Institut für Bevölkerung und Entwicklung
Our brains house extremely complex neuronal circuits, whose detailed structures are still largely unknown. This is especially true for the so-called cerebral cortex of mammals, where among other things vision, thoughts or spatial orientation are being computed. Here the rules by which nerve cells are connected to each other are only partly understood. A team of scientists around Moritz Helmstaedter at the Frankfiurt Max Planck Institute for Brain Research and Helene Schmidt (Humboldt University in Berlin) have now discovered a surprisingly precise nerve cell connectivity pattern in the part of the cerebral cortex that is responsible for orienting the individual animal or human in space.
The researchers report online in Nature (Schmidt et al., 2017. Axonal synapse sorting in medial entorhinal cortex, DOI: 10.1038/nature24005) that synapses in...
Whispering gallery mode (WGM) resonators are used to make tiny micro-lasers, sensors, switches, routers and other devices. These tiny structures rely on a...
Using ultrafast flashes of laser and x-ray radiation, scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics (Garching, Germany) took snapshots of the briefest electron motion inside a solid material to date. The electron motion lasted only 750 billionths of the billionth of a second before it fainted, setting a new record of human capability to capture ultrafast processes inside solids!
When x-rays shine onto solid materials or large molecules, an electron is pushed away from its original place near the nucleus of the atom, leaving a hole...
For the first time, physicists have successfully imaged spiral magnetic ordering in a multiferroic material. These materials are considered highly promising candidates for future data storage media. The researchers were able to prove their findings using unique quantum sensors that were developed at Basel University and that can analyze electromagnetic fields on the nanometer scale. The results – obtained by scientists from the University of Basel’s Department of Physics, the Swiss Nanoscience Institute, the University of Montpellier and several laboratories from University Paris-Saclay – were recently published in the journal Nature.
Multiferroics are materials that simultaneously react to electric and magnetic fields. These two properties are rarely found together, and their combined...
MBM ScienceBridge GmbH successfully negotiated a license agreement between University Medical Center Göttingen (UMG) and the biotech company Tissue Systems Holding GmbH about commercial use of a multi-well tissue plate for automated and reliable tissue engineering & drug testing.
MBM ScienceBridge GmbH successfully negotiated a license agreement between University Medical Center Göttingen (UMG) and the biotech company Tissue Systems...
19.09.2017 | Event News
12.09.2017 | Event News
06.09.2017 | Event News
21.09.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
21.09.2017 | Life Sciences
21.09.2017 | Health and Medicine