Deciphering the Necrobiome and Postmortem Microbiomes for Use in Forensics

  • M. Eric Benbow, PhD, AAFS-F

    Associate Professor, Department of Entomology, Department of Osteopathic Medical Specialties, Ecology, Evolutionary Biology, and Behavior Program, Michigan State University


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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