Establishing the time since death is critical in every death investigation, yet existing techniques are susceptible to a range of errors and biases. For example, forensic entomology is widely used to assess the postmortem interval (PMI), but errors can range from days to months. Microbes may provide a novel method for estimating PMI that avoids many of these limitations. Here we show that postmortem microbial community changes are dramatic, measurable, and repeatable in a mouse model system, allowing PMI to be estimated within approximately 3 days over 48 days. Our results provide a detailed understanding of bacterial and microbial eukaryotic ecology within a decomposing corpse system and suggest that microbial community data can be developed into a forensic tool for estimating PMI.
Our bodies—especially our skin, our saliva, the lining of our mouth and our gastrointestinal tract—are home to a diverse collection of bacteria and other microorganisms called the microbiome. While the roles played by many of these microorganisms have yet to be identified, it is known that they contribute to the health and wellbeing of their host by metabolizing indigestible compounds, producing essential vitamins, and preventing the growth of harmful bacteria. They are important for nutrient and carbon cycling in the environment.
The advent of advanced sequencing techniques has made it feasible to study the composition of this microbial community, and to monitor how it changes over time or how it responds to events such as antibiotic treatment. Sequencing studies have been used to highlight the significant differences between microbial communities found in different parts of the body, and to follow the evolution of the gut microbiome from birth. Most of these studies have focused on live animals, so little is known about what happens to the microbiome after its host dies. In particular, it is not known if the changes that occur after death are similar for all individuals. Moreover, the decomposing animal supplies nutrients and carbon to the surrounding ecosystem, but its influence on the microbial community of its immediate environment is not well understood.
Now Metcalf et al. have used high-throughput sequencing to study the bacteria and other microorganisms (such as nematodes and fungi) in dead and decomposing mice, and also in the soil beneath them, over the course of 48 days. The changes were significant and also consistent across the corpses, with the microbial communities in the corpses influencing those in the soil, and vice versa. Metcalf et al. also showed that these measurements could be used to estimate the postmortem interval (the time since death) to within approximately 3 days, which suggests that the work could have applications in forensic science.