New Oral Microbiome Study Could Provide Better Estimate of Time since Death

A new study conducted at UT’s Anthropology Research Facility examining mouth microbiomes could help scientists more accurately estimate time since death.

The research, published recently in the journal Molecular Oral Microbiology, shows that scientists can detect bacterial species that are accurate indicators of the different decomposition stages.

The work has been featured in Forensic Magazine and highlighted in United Press International.

Dawnie Steadman, director of the UT Forensic Anthropology Center and one of the study’s authors, told Forensic Magazine that the research could be another forensic clue to further understanding of postmortem intervals.

The center houses the UT Anthropology Research Facility, commonly known as the Body Farm.

“I think that any time we can add important information into a body of existing work, such as gut microbiome studies, it sheds more light on the forensic relevance of bacteria as a whole to estimate the postmortem interval,” she said. “It is a very exciting area of research.”

Steadman collaborated with Joe Adserias-Garriga, a faculty member at the University of Girona and the study’s lead author.

“This study depicts the successional changes in the oral cavity along the human decomposition process, and highlights its potential use in forensic cases as a quantitative and objective approach to estimate postmortem interval,” said Adserias-Garriga.

A dentist and biologist, Adserias-Garriga knew the oral cavity is an important site of bacterial colonization in the body. As such, she undertook the study theorizing that oral bacteria could be of help as indicators of time since death, she said.

The study included three donors—an 80-year-old man with fixed crowns, an 81-year-old woman with no teeth, and a 27-year-old woman with natural teeth. The researchers took oral swab samples daily at the different stages of decomposition.

The research could help the forensic community because the oral cavity is simple to sample and easily accessible in all stages of human decomposition, Adserias-Garriga said. Studying oral microbiome changes would also be applicable in most forensic cases, no matter where a body decomposes.

Media Coverage: Forensic Magazine, Seth Augenstein, Aug. 2, United Press International, Amy Wallace, Aug. 1

CONTACT:

Lola Alapo (865-974-3993, lalapo@utk.edu)