Deciphering the Necrobiome and Postmortem Microbiomes for Use in Forensics

C.E. Credits: P.A.C.E. CE Florida CE
Speaker
  • Associate Professor, Department of Entomology, Department of Osteopathic Medical Specialties, Ecology, Evolutionary Biology, and Behavior Program, Michigan State University
    Biography
      Dr. Benbow joined the faculty of at Michigan State University in 2014 with a joint appointment in the Department of Department of Entomology and Department Osteopathic Medical Specialties. From 2008 - 2013 he was an assistant professor at the University of Dayton. His research program has developed around basic and applied insect and microbial ecology, with a history of studying disease in West Africa and more recent activities in building partnerships for food security in Malawi. He is the author or coauthor of over 140 peer-reviewed journal articles, 29 book chapters, three edited books and has received funding through NIH, NSF, NIJ, USDA, USGS, and USFS. Dr. Benbow has also served on three National Academy of Science, Engineering and Medicine appointed committees and is a regularly invited speaker to many international venues as a result of interactions with national and international scientists. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and former president of the North American Forensic Entomology Association. Dr. Benbow is a community and disease ecologist, studying how complex communities (e.g., aquatic or carrion insects or microbes) contribute to ecological systems and can understanding these communities can be used in various applications in medicine, disease and forensics. One of the largest community ecology studies related to human health has been the Human Microbiome Project that showed much of the human body is composed of a wide diversity of prokaryotic cells and that these communities have significant importance to human health. Using the technological advances that came with the Human Microbiome Project, Dr. Benbow and colleagues have partnered with a medical examiner office to survey the postmortem microbiomes during routine autopsies and death investigations. The goal of this collaborative work is to determine how postmortem microbiomes can be used to make estimates of the postmortem interval and manner/cause of death. In addition to this work, Dr. Benbow's lab also does basic forensic research on how aquatic microbiomes can be used to estimate postmortem submersion intervals; consults for death investigations; and studies how insects and microbial communities interact in ways that could affect evidence during investigations. In addition to forensic research, Dr. Benbow's lab asks three general questions: 1) Is insect fitness influenced by the community of microbes living in or on them? 2) What are the ecological interactions of insects with the microbial communities associated with their habitat or food resources? and, 3) How can this information be used to inform resources management, human health and forensics? With a joint appointment in the College of Osteopathic Medicine, his lab seeks to answer these insect-microbe questions for translation into human health applications. Given the rich history of research in insect-microbe interactions that has focused on vectoring pathogens and co-evolved symbionts, coupled with the advanced ability to identify culturable and non-culturable bacteria using high throughput sequencing, a new generation of inquiry into the importance of the insect microbiome and their interactions in nature has tremendous potential for insect science. It is within this realm of inquiry where his students test explicit hypotheses at the individual, population and community levels to better understand the importance of insect-microbe interactions to the ecology and evolution of carrion, aquatic biology, forensics and disease systems. The research centers on the applied ecology of insect-microbial interactions within three systems: carrion decomposition (and forensics), aquatic ecological networks and disease systems.

    Abstract

    The necrobiome is the community of organisms that use or are affected by decomposing organic matter.  Decomposing organic matter comes in the form of dead plant matter (biomass) or that of dead animals, including humans.  Using research into how these communities (e.g., insects, pollen, microbes) colonize, use and change during the decomposition of vertebrate carcasses can inform science with potential forensic utility. One emerging area of forensic research has been into postmortem microbiomes and how they have potential to estimate postmortem intervals, postmortem submersion intervals, manner/cause of death and other areas of investigative interest. While recent research on postmortem microbiomes shows excellent promise, there are several challenges that will limit practical use during death investigations; these issues span from basic experimental desing and context to understanding the extent of variability in postmortem microbiomes across human demographics, ethics, geography and time.  This presentation provides an introduction to the necrobiome commonly associated with decomposing animals, including humans; a summary of past and current research into postmortem microbiome science; example case studies; and a discussion of the challenges that will require consideration and solutions before postmortem microbiome evidence becomes acceptable and used within the forensic sciences.

    Learning Objectives

    1. Define the postmortem microbiome and two examples of how it can be potentially used in forensic sciences.
    2. Identify various challenges in using the postmortem microbiome in forensics.
    3. Describe the pros and cons of performing research in anthropological research facilities versus autopsies (or cases) to provide postmortem microbiome data that can be used in future routine death investigation.


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