U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government, Department of Justice.

Body Mass Index (BMI) Impacts Soil Chemical and Microbial Response to Human Decomposition

NCJ Number
Allison R. Mason; Hayden S. McKee-Zech; Katharina M. Hoeland; Mary C. Davis; Shawn R. Campagna; Dawnie W. Steadman; Jennifer M. DeBruyn
Date Published
September 2022
21 pages

The goal of this study was to investigate the effects of several intrinsic factors (age, sex, diseases at time of death, and body mass index [BMI]) on chemical and microbial changes in decomposition-impacted soils.


Microorganisms are key decomposers of vertebrate mortalities, breaking down body tissues and impacting decomposition progress. During human decomposition, both extrinsic environmental factors and intrinsic cadaver-related factors have the potential to impact microbial decomposers either directly or indirectly via altered physical or chemical conditions. While extrinsic factors (e.g., temperature, humidity) explain some variation in microbial response during human decomposition in terrestrial settings, recent work has noted that even under the same environmental conditions, individuals can have different decomposition patterns, highlighting the potential for intrinsic factors to impact microbial decomposers. In the current field study conducted at the University of Tennessee Anthropology Research Facility, soils were collected from the decomposition-impacted area surrounding 19 deceased human individuals through the end of active decomposition. Soil physicochemical parameters were measured, and microbial (bacterial and fungal) communities were assessed via amplicon sequencing. BMI was shown to explain some variation in soil pH and microbial response to human decomposition. Hierarchical linear mixed (HLM) effects models revealed that BMI category significantly explained variation in pH response within decomposition-impacted soils over time (HLM F = 9.647; P < 0.001). Additionally, the relative abundance of soil Saccharomycetes in decomposition soils under underweight donors displayed little to no changes (mean maximum change in relative abundance, +6.6%), while all other BMI categories displayed an increased relative abundance of these organisms over time (normal, +50.6%; overweight, +64.4%; and obese, +64.6%) (HLM F = 3.441; P = 0.11). Together, these results reveal intrinsic factors influencing decomposition patterns, especially within the soil environment, and suggest BMI is an important factor for controlling decomposition processes.

IMPORTANCE: This work begins to address questions about interindividual variation in vertebrate decomposition attributed to intrinsic factors, that is, properties of the carcass or cadaver itself. Most research on factors affecting decomposition has focused on the extrinsic environment, such as temperature or humidity. While these extrinsic factors do explain some variation in decomposition patterns, interindividual variability is still observed. Understanding how intrinsic factors influence microbial decomposers will help reveal the ecological impacts of decomposition. This work also has forensic applications, as soil chemical and biological changes have been suggested as indicators of postmortem interval. We reveal factors that explain variation in the decomposition environment that should be considered in these estimates. This is particularly important as we consider the implications of variations in human populations due to diet, age, BMI, disease, toxicological loading, etc. on forensic investigations dealing with decomposing remains. (Publisher abstract provided)


Date Published: September 1, 2022