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Postmortem Skeletal Microbial Community Composition and Function in Buried Human Remains

NCJ Number
Msystems Volume: 7 Issue: 2 Dated: March/April 2022
Alexandra L. Emmons ; Amy Z. Mundorff; Katharina M. Hoeland; Jonathan Davoren; Sarah W. Keenan; David O. Carter; Shawn R. Campagna; Jennifer M. DeBruyn
Date Published
March 2022

Here we characterized the postmortem bone microbiome of skeletal remains in a multi-individual burial to better understand subsurface bone colonization and preservation.


Bones and teeth can provide a lasting resource to identify human remains following decomposition. Bone can support dynamic communities of micro- and macroscopic scavengers and incidental taxa, which influence the preservation of bone over time. Previously we identified key microbial taxa associated with survivability of DNA in bones of surface-decomposed human remains, observing high intra- and interindividual variation. In the current study, to understand microbial community origins and assembly, 16S rRNA amplicon sequences from 256 bone and 27 soil samples were compared to bone from individuals who decomposed on the ground surface, and human gut sequences from the American Gut Project. Untargeted metabolomics was applied to a subset of 41 bone samples from buried remains to examine potential microbe–metabolite interactions and infer differences related to community functionality. Results show that postmortem bone microbial communities are distinct from those of the oxic surface soils and the human gut. Microbial communities from surface-deposited bone and shallow buried bone were more similar to those from soils, while bones recovered from saturated areas deeper in the grave showed increased similarity with human gut samples with higher representation of anaerobic taxa, suggesting that the depositional environment affected the established bone microbiome. Correlations between metabolites and microbes indicate that phosphate solubilization is likely an important mechanism of microbially mediated skeletal degradation. This research expands our knowledge of microbial bone colonizers, including colonizers important in a burial environment. (Publisher Abstract Provided)


Date Published: March 1, 2022