Postmortem age estimation via DNA methylation analysis in buccal swabs from corpses in different stages of decomposition-a "proof of principle" study

Int J Legal Med. 2021 Jan;135(1):167-173. doi: 10.1007/s00414-020-02360-7. Epub 2020 Jul 7.

Abstract

Age estimation based on the analysis of DNA methylation patterns has become a focus of forensic research within the past few years. However, there is little data available regarding postmortem DNA methylation analysis yet, and literature mainly encompasses analysis of blood from corpses without any signs of decomposition. It is not entirely clear yet which other types of specimen are suitable for postmortem epigenetic age estimation, and if advanced decomposition may affect methylation patterns of CpG sites. In living persons, buccal swabs are an easily accessible source of DNA for epigenetic age estimation. In this work, the applicability of this approach (buccal swabs as source of DNA) under different postmortem conditions was tested. Methylation levels of PDE4C were investigated in buccal swab samples collected from 73 corpses (0-90 years old; mean: 51.2) in different stages of decomposition. Moreover, buccal swab samples from 142 living individuals (0-89 years old; mean 41.2) were analysed. As expected, methylation levels exhibited a high correlation with age in living individuals (training set: r2 = 0.87, validation set: r2 = 0.85). This was also the case in postmortem samples (r2 = 0.90), independent of the state of decomposition. Only in advanced putrified cases with extremely low DNA amounts, epigenetic age estimation was not possible. In conclusion, buccal swabs are a suitable and easy to collect source for DNA methylation analysis as long as sufficient amounts of DNA are present.

Keywords: Age estimation; Buccal swabs; Corpses; DNA methylation; Decomposition; Postmortem.