Potential Use of Bacterial Community Succession in Decaying Human Bone for Estimating Postmortem Interval

J Forensic Sci. 2015 Jul;60(4):844-50. doi: 10.1111/1556-4029.12744. Epub 2015 Mar 24.


Bacteria are taphonomic agents of human decomposition, potentially useful for estimating postmortem interval (PMI) in late-stage decomposition. Bone samples from 12 individuals and three soil samples were analyzed to assess the effects of decomposition and advancing time on bacterial communities. Results indicated that partially skeletonized remains maintained a presence of bacteria associated with the human gut, whereas bacterial composition of dry skeletal remains maintained a community profile similar to soil communities. Variation in the UniFrac distances was significantly greater between groups than within groups (p < 0.001) for the unweighted metric and not the weighted metric. The members of the bacterial communities were more similar within than between decomposition stages. The oligotrophic environment of bone relative to soft tissue and the physical protection of organic substrates may preclude bacterial blooms during the first years of skeletonization. Therefore, community membership (unweighted) may be better for estimating PMI from skeletonized remains than community structure (weighted).

Keywords: decomposition; forensic science; forensic taphonomy; human skeleton; microbiome; postmortem interval; succession.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Bacteria / genetics
  • Bacteria / isolation & purification*
  • DNA, Bacterial / isolation & purification*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Polymerase Chain Reaction
  • Postmortem Changes*
  • RNA, Ribosomal, 16S / metabolism
  • Ribs / microbiology*
  • Sequence Analysis, DNA
  • Soil Microbiology*


  • DNA, Bacterial
  • RNA, Ribosomal, 16S