The Search for a Microbial Death Clock

Except for the dead bodies, the landscape is idyllic. There is a forest of shortleaf pines, with boxelder and white ash trees nearby. There is restored prairie land, bottomland hardwood, and an area called Palmetto Flat. The overall ecology is not only inviting but important, as the soil conditions, temperature, rainfall and heat all affect how the human bodies scattered across the land decompose.

The cadavers are purposefully placed there to help scientists, medical examiners, and criminal investigators. The donated bodies at the Southeast Texas Applied Forensic Science Facility (STAFS), near Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, answer questions about the biology after death, that time when a human body goes from being the home of a living person to, as researchers put it, a “rich nutrient source” for insects and microbes.

Scientists have long known about the important progression of insect populations during the first two weeks of decomposition, and how that can serve as a clock to determine how long a body has been dead. But in recent years, several researchers, supported by National Institute of Justice grants, have tried to extend the clock to a month or more by focusing on the microbes that consume a body after death.

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