Functional and Structural Succession of Soil Microbial Communities below Decomposing Human Cadavers

PLoS One. 2015 Jun 12;10(6):e0130201. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0130201. eCollection 2015.


The ecological succession of microbes during cadaver decomposition has garnered interest in both basic and applied research contexts (e.g. community assembly and dynamics; forensic indicator of time since death). Yet current understanding of microbial ecology during decomposition is almost entirely based on plant litter. We know very little about microbes recycling carcass-derived organic matter despite the unique decomposition processes. Our objective was to quantify the taxonomic and functional succession of microbial populations in soils below decomposing cadavers, testing the hypotheses that a) periods of increased activity during decomposition are associated with particular taxa; and b) human-associated taxa are introduced to soils, but do not persist outside their host. We collected soils from beneath four cadavers throughout decomposition, and analyzed soil chemistry, microbial activity and bacterial community structure. As expected, decomposition resulted in pulses of soil C and nutrients (particularly ammonia) and stimulated microbial activity. There was no change in total bacterial abundances, however we observed distinct changes in both function and community composition. During active decay (7 - 12 days postmortem), respiration and biomass production rates were high: the community was dominated by Proteobacteria (increased from 15.0 to 26.1% relative abundance) and Firmicutes (increased from 1.0 to 29.0%), with reduced Acidobacteria abundances (decreased from 30.4 to 9.8%). Once decay rates slowed (10 - 23 d postmortem), respiration was elevated, but biomass production rates dropped dramatically; this community with low growth efficiency was dominated by Firmicutes (increased to 50.9%) and other anaerobic taxa. Human-associated bacteria, including the obligately anaerobic Bacteroides, were detected at high concentrations in soil throughout decomposition, up to 198 d postmortem. Our results revealed the pattern of functional and compositional succession in soil microbial communities during decomposition of human-derived organic matter, provided insight into decomposition processes, and identified putative predictor populations for time since death estimation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Bacteria* / classification
  • Bacteria* / isolation & purification
  • Cadaver*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Soil Microbiology*

Grant support

Funding for this study was provided by University of Tennessee AgResearch and Microbiology Across Campuses Educational and Research Venture to JMD. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.