U.S. flag

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

Microbial Community Functional Change during Vertebrate Carrion Decomposition

NCJ Number
PLoS ONE Volume: 8 Issue: 11 Dated: 2013
Date Published

The authors report on the testing of the following three hypotheses to characterize microbial community function throughout carrion decomposition: microbial functional activity would be dependent on seasonal variation related to local ambient environmental (e.g., temperature) conditions; microbial functional diversity would vary between years depending on temperatures; and that necrophagous insect colonization would have a significant impact on microbial community functional change throughout carrion decomposition.


Microorganisms play a critical role in the decomposition of organic matter, which contributes to energy and nutrient transformation in every ecosystem. Yet, little is known about the functional activity of epinecrotic microbial communities associated with carrion. The objective of this study was to provide a description of the carrion associated microbial community functional activity using differential carbon source use throughout decomposition over seasons, between years and when microbial communities were isolated from eukaryotic colonizers (e.g., necrophagous insects). Additionally, microbial communities were identified at the phyletic level using high throughput sequencing during a single study. The authors hypothesized that carrion microbial community functional profiles would change over the duration of decomposition, and that this change would depend on season, year and presence of necrophagous insect colonization. Biolog EcoPlates™ were used to measure the variation in epinecrotic microbial community function by the differential use of 29 carbon sources throughout vertebrate carrion decomposition. Pyrosequencing was used to describe the bacterial community composition in one experiment to identify key phyla associated with community functional changes. Overall, microbial functional activity increased throughout decomposition in spring, summer, and winter while it decreased in autumn. Additionally, microbial functional activity was higher in 2011 when necrophagous arthropod colonizer effects were tested. There were inconsistent trends in the microbial function of communities isolated from remains colonized by necrophagous insects between 2010 and 2011, suggesting a greater need for a mechanistic understanding of the process. These data indicate that functional analyses can be implemented in carrion studies and will be important in understanding the influence of microbial communities on an essential ecosystem process, carrion decomposition. (Publisher Abstract Provided)

Date Published: January 1, 2013