Determining the impact of carrion decomposition on soil microbial activity levels and community composition.
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The ubiquitous nature of microorganisms and their specificity to certain locations make them potentially useful for forensic investigators. Advances in microbial profiling techniques have made it possible to compare microbial community profiles obtained from evidence or crime scenes to individuals and vice versa. Profiling microbial communities associated with cadaver decomposition may provide useful information concerning post-mortem intervals and aid in the identification of clandestine graves. Four experiments using pigs as human decomposition analogues were performed over the course of 2011 and 2012 in southern Ontario to document changes in soil microbiology following decomposition. Studies were conducted in the spring and summer to document the effect of environmental conditions on the decomposition process and subsequent changes in gravesoil microbiology. Microbial activity was measured using a fluorescein diacetate assay as a preliminary indicator of changes within the soil microbial population. Both decreases and increases in microbial activity were observed throughout each decomposition experiment indicating that the microbial response to decomposition is complex. It is believed that environmental conditions and decomposition rates play a role in determining how taphonomic events affect soil microbial activity. Fatty acid methyl esters (FAME) profiling was used document community level changes throughout decomposition. Shifts in FAMEs profiles were brought on by the onset of active decay and persisted through to the dry remains stage. The fatty acids 3OH 12:0, 12:0, 16:0 and 18:0 were frequently found in higher amounts in gravesoils and may prove useful as markers of cadaver decomposition. Metagenomic profiles of soil microbial communities were obtained using Illumina® sequencing. Decomposition was associated with changes in microbial community composition. This allowed gravesoil samples to be differentiated from control samples for an extended period of time. Bacteria responsible for the shift in microbial profiles are those commonly associated with cadaver decomposition. Both sets of soil profiles indicated that weather had an effect on microbial community composition. Results highlight the need to document natural changes in microbial communities over seasons and years to establish normal microbial patterns to effectively use soil microbial profiles as post-mortem interval or clandestine grave indicators.