Heather Deel

Heather Deel

CM 793 Presentation Date: October 21, 2021 @ 2:00 PM in Pathology 103

Title: “Microbial succession in human rib skeletal remains and the bacterial diversity of blow fly organs and fly-human microbial transfer during decomposition”

Advisor: Jessica Metcalf


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.