The Microbiome of Human Decomposition

The Living Dead: Bacterial Community Structure of a Cadaver at the Onset and End of the Bloat Stage of Decomposition

Human decomposition is a mosaic system with an intimate association between biotic and abiotic factors. Despite the integral role of bacteria in the decomposition process, few studies have catalogued bacterial biodiversity for terrestrial scenarios. To explore the microbiome of decomposition, two cadavers were placed at the Southeast Texas Applied Forensic Science facility and allowed to decompose under natural conditions. The bloat stage of decomposition, a stage easily identified in taphonomy and readily attributed to microbial physiology, was targeted. Each cadaver was sampled at two time points, at the onset and end of the bloat stage, from various body sites including internal locations. Bacterial samples were analyzed by pyrosequencing of the 16S rRNA gene. Our data show a shift from aerobic bacteria to anaerobic bacteria in all body sites sampled and demonstrate variation in community structure between bodies, between sample sites within a body, and between initial and end points of the bloat stage within a sample site. These data are best not viewed as points of comparison but rather additive data sets. While some species recovered are the same as those observed in culture-based studies, many are novel. Our results are preliminary and add to a larger emerging data set; a more comprehensive study is needed to further dissect the role of bacteria in human decomposition.


The Living Dead: Bacterial Community Structure of a Cadaver at the Onset and End of the Bloat Stage of Decomposition