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

Abstract

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. Here, we characterize the human bone microbial decomposer community to determine whether microbial succession is a marker for PMI. 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. We 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. Additionally, we found significant overall differences in bone microbial community composition between seasons. Finally, we 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. IMPORTANCE Microbes are known to facilitate vertebrate decomposition, and they can do so in a repeatable, predictable manner. The succession of microbes in the skin and associated soil can be used to predict time since death during the first few weeks of decomposition. However, when remains are discovered after months or years, often the only evidence are skeletal remains. To determine if microbial succession in bone would be useful for estimating time since death after several months, human subjects were placed to decompose in the spring and summer seasons. Ribs were collected after 1 to 9 months of decomposition, and the bone microbial communities were characterized. Analysis revealed a core bone decomposer microbial community with some differences in microbial assembly occurring between seasons. These data provided time since death estimates of approximately ±34 days over 9 months. This may provide forensic investigators with a tool for estimating time since death of skeletal remains, for which there are few current methods.

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