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 Jessica Metcalf, a CU-Boulder postdoctoral researcher and first author on the study.
The paper on the subject was published Sept. 23, 2013, 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 Institute 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.”