An intriguing study led by the University of Colorado Boulder may provide a powerful new tool in the quiver of forensic scientists attempting to determine the time of death in cases involving human corpses: a microbial clock.
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. Via microbial clock’ may help determine time of death