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."
- Jessica L. Metcalf, Laura Wegener Parfrey, Antonio Gonzalez, Christian L. Lauber, Danknights, Gail Ackermann, Greg C. Humphrey, Matthew J.gebert, Will Van Treuren, Donna Berg-lyons, Kyle Keepers, Yan Guo, James Bullard, Noah Fierer, David O. Carter, Rob Knight. A microbial clock provides an accurate estimate of the postmortem interval in a mouse model system. eLife, September 2013 DOI: 10.7554/eLife.01104
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