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Initial insights into bacterial succession during human decomposition


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.

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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.

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Correspondence to Sibyl R. Bucheli.

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Online Resource 4

Percent abundances through time of major genera across all body sites, STAFS 2012-021. (DOCX 141 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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Hyde, E.R., Haarmann, D.P., Petrosino, J.F. et al. Initial insights into bacterial succession during human decomposition. Int J Legal Med 129, 661–671 (2015).

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  • Decomposition
  • Human cadavers
  • Bacterial succession
  • Metagenomics