International Journal of Legal Medicine

, Volume 129, Issue 3, pp 661–671 | Cite as

Initial insights into bacterial succession during human decomposition

  • Embriette R. Hyde
  • Daniel P. Haarmann
  • Joseph F. Petrosino
  • Aaron M. Lynne
  • Sibyl R. BucheliEmail author
Original Article


Decomposition is a dynamic ecological process dependent upon many factors such as environment, climate, and bacterial, insect, and vertebrate activity in addition to intrinsic properties inherent to individual cadavers. Although largely attributed to microbial metabolism, very little is known about the bacterial basis of human decomposition. To assess the change in bacterial community structure through time, bacterial samples were collected from several sites across two cadavers placed outdoors to decompose and analyzed through 454 pyrosequencing and analysis of variable regions 3–5 of the bacterial 16S ribosomal RNA (16S rRNA) gene. Each cadaver was characterized by a change in bacterial community structure for all sites sampled as time, and decomposition, progressed. Bacteria community structure is variable at placement and before purge for all body sites. At bloat and purge and until tissues began to dehydrate or were removed, bacteria associated with flies, such as Ignatzschineria and Wohlfahrtimonas, were common. After dehydration and skeletonization, bacteria associated with soil, such as Acinetobacter, were common at most body sites sampled. However, more cadavers sampled through multiple seasons are necessary to assess major trends in bacterial succession.


Decomposition Human cadavers Bacterial succession Metagenomics 



The authors would like to extend our appreciation to the donors and their families; without them, this research would not be possible. Bucheli and Lynne would like to thank Natalie Lindgren, Brent Rahlwes, Melissa Sisson, James Willett, and Jordan Baker for field assistance and Chris Randle and James Harper for intellectual contribution. The authors would like to thank Dr. Joan Bytheway and Kevin Derr at the STAFS facility.

Supplementary material

414_2014_1128_Fig7_ESM.jpg (1.4 mb)
Online Resource 1

Stages of decomposition targeted for sampling: A) day of placement; B) pre-bloat; C) bloat; D) purge; E) putrefaction; and F) skeletonization. (JPEG 1403 kb)

414_2014_1128_Fig8_ESM.jpg (202 kb)
Online Resource 2

Box and whisker plots illustrating the median, minimum, maximum, first quartile, and third quartile for (a) the number of observed species and (b) the Shannon diversity index of right and left bicep samples collected from STAFS 2012-021. Alpha diversity metrics were calculated on a sequencing depth of 910 sequences per sample. (JPEG 202 kb)

414_2014_1128_Fig9_ESM.jpg (196 kb)
Online Resource 3

Box and whisker plots illustrating the median, minimum, maximum, first quartile, and third quartile for (a) the number of observed species and (b) the Shannon diversity index of right and left bicep samples collected from STAFS 2012-023. Alpha diversity metrics were calculated on a sequencing depth of 910 sequences per sample. (JPEG 196 kb)

414_2014_1128_MOESM1_ESM.docx (141 kb)
Online Resource 4 Percent abundances through time of major genera across all body sites, STAFS 2012-021. (DOCX 141 kb)
414_2014_1128_MOESM2_ESM.docx (132 kb)
Online Resource 5 Percent abundances through time of major genera across all body sites, STAFS 2012-023. (DOCX 132 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Embriette R. Hyde
    • 1
    • 2
  • Daniel P. Haarmann
    • 3
  • Joseph F. Petrosino
    • 1
    • 4
  • Aaron M. Lynne
    • 3
  • Sibyl R. Bucheli
    • 3
    Email author
  1. 1.Alkek Center for Metagenomics and Microbiome ResearchBaylor College of MedicineHoustonUSA
  2. 2.Integrative Molecular and Biomedical Sciences Training ProgramBaylor College of MedicineHoustonUSA
  3. 3.Department of Biological SciencesSam Houston State UniversityHuntsvilleUSA
  4. 4.Department of Molecular Virology and MicrobiologyBaylor College of MedicineHoustonUSA

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