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A Pilot Study of Microbial Succession in Human Rib Skeletal Remains during Terrestrial Decomposition

NCJ Number
Date Published
March 2022

This study characterized the human bone microbial decomposer community to determine whether microbial succession is a marker for the postmortem interval (PMI).


The bones of decomposing vertebrates are colonized by a succession of diverse microbial communities. If this succession is similar across individuals, microbes may provide clues about the postmortem interval (PMI) during forensic investigations in which human skeletal remains are discovered. In the current study six human donor subjects were placed outdoors to decompose on the soil surface at the Southeast Texas Applied Forensic Science facility. To also assess the effect of seasons, three decedents were placed each in the spring and summer. Once ribs were exposed through natural decomposition, a rib was collected from each body for eight time points at 3 weeks apart. The analysis discovered a core bone decomposer microbiome dominated by taxa in the phylum Proteobacteria and evidence that these bone-invading microbes are likely sourced from the surrounding decomposition environment, including skin of the cadaver and soils. In addition, the analysis found significant overall differences in bone microbial community composition between seasons. Finally, the study used the microbial community data to develop random forest models that predict PMI with an accuracy of approximately ±34 days over a 1- to 9-month time frame of decomposition. Typically, anthropologists provide PMI estimates based on qualitative information, giving PMI errors ranging from several months to years. Previous work has focused on only the characterization of the bone microbiome decomposer community, and this is the first known data-driven, quantitative PMI estimate of terrestrially decomposed human skeletal remains using microbial abundance information. (Publisher Abstract)


Date Published: March 10, 2022