Postmortem Interval and Microbial Populations

According to a report by researchers at the Department of Entomology of Texas A&M University, microbes represent 99% of somatic cells in and on a human body … but can those organisms be used to predict the time since death?

A report recently made available online - the result of funds from NIJ - is titled “Development and Validation of Standard Operating Procedures for Measuring Microbial Populations for Estimating a Postmortem Interval” and was written by Jeffrey K. Tomberlin, Tawni L. Crippen, M. Eric Benbow, and Aaron M. Tarone.


"Predicting the postmortem interval of a decedent is a major task of law enforcement. Most methods implemented by death investigators rely on qualitative information (i.e., rigor mortis, livor mortis). Microbes represent 99% of somatic cells in and on a human body. No data are available on the use of these organisms to predict the time since death of a decedent, though it is known that certain chemicals, many of which are likely a result of microbial communities, are released by decomposing remains in a reliable pattern. Moreover, the effects of microbes on insect colonization of remains, sometimes the best predictor of a postmortem interval, are not understood. Because of a lack of understanding of microbial succession on decomposing human remains, no standard operating procedures (SOP) for sampling and using this information have been developed and validated. We developed a SOP for sampling and pyrosequencing bacteria communities on human remains to predict the actual time since death. We conducted a series of laboratory and field studies to achieve this end. The field studies will implement the SOP for sampling bacteria on decomposing human remains at the Forensic Anthropology Research Facility at Texas State University."

The full paper is available here.

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Digital-Image Management at Mass Gravesites

SKELETONIZED REMAINS that were carefully unearthed from the desert sands of Iraq tell their own story: the bones of an adult, still dressed in a woman’s apparel, lie supine. The skull is perforated by a bullet hole. Tucked in the space between the ribs and the left humerus is a much smaller skeleton, bones in the skull un-fused, and the fully clothed body partially swaddled in a blanket.