Life After Death? Necrobiomes, Thanotomicrobiomes, and the future of Forensic Entomology

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While scientific evidence of the soul’s continuation after death is still a hotly debated topic there is one thing forensic scientists have no trouble agreeing on: some of the bacteria inhabiting our bodies not only survives, but thrives, after our death. We even pick up new varieties of bacteria postmortem and the whole cycle is so predictable that it allows forensic scientists to gauge a victim’s time of death with near precise accuracy; something that hasn’t been possible until recently. Known as Necrobiomes (or Thanotomicrobiomes), these macabre bacterial colonies can also be as unique as fingerprints, revealing the identity of perpetrators like rapists, even when no DNA sample is available. It may even be possible to teach cadaver dogs to detect their presence in soil; granting investigators another method of locating bodies, or places where bodies may have been held.

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The Body Farm

The Southeast Texas Applied Forensic Science (STAFS) Facility (a.k.a. “The Body Farm”) contains the remains of some of those who have donated their bodies to science. The remains are placed outside, open to the elements and every factor of their decomposition is tracked.  Disgusting as the research is, it has undeniably unearthed facts which have changed our ability to discover the time of death in a homicide. Traditional methods of assigning time of death are imprecise at best: investigators note everything from the temperature of the body to the stiffness and amount of decomposition present in order to create a reasonable estimate of when the person died. Still, it’s far from an exact science; environmental factors like humidity and temperature can cause variable decay rates. Even the best educated guesses can be off by hours to days, depending on the age of the corpse. This makes the subsequent investigation more difficult because police can’t pinpoint when the crime occurred.  Microbe colonies like those being investigated at the body farm (though not yet admissible as evidence in court) may well be a game changer which allow forensic scientists to pinpoint the time of death almost exactly. Whether it’s hot or cold, rain or shine, microbes are predictable and predictable is solvable.

Biological Fingerprints

Measuring the time of death isn’t the only way to use forensic entomology. It turns out that the specific combinations of bacteria living within our bodies is unique to us – as unique as a fingerprint. The places we go, the things we touch, even the things we eat, all leave a specific microbial trail. Just like fingerprints, no two people in the world have the exact same combination of bacteria living within them and on them. This discovery could one day lead to criminal convictions in cases like theft, rape or assault where the perpetrator may not have left anything behind but these microscopic hitch-hikers. There may one day be a time when CSI crews check for microbes right along with DNA and those findings get presented in court. We’re a long way off still; the ability to identify individuals by their bacteria or precisely identify the time of death in a homicide is largely untested; it’s the cutting-edge of future forensics. That’s what makes the work done by scientists like the intrepid staff at the Body Farm so valuable.

Interested in Forensic Entomology?

If you are a student working on your forensic science degree then forensic entomology is one of the paths available to you. If you’d like some more information about entomology and necrobiology you can check out these links: