Microbial community assembly and metabolic function during mammalian corpse decomposition

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Science  08 Jan 2016:
Vol. 351, Issue 6269, pp. 158-162
DOI: 10.1126/science.aad2646

Decomposition spawns a microbial zoo

The death of a large animal represents a food bonanza for microorganisms. Metcalf et al. monitored microbial activity during the decomposition of mouse and human cadavers. Regardless of soil type, season, or species, the microbial succession during decomposition was a predictable measure of time since death. An overlying corpse leaches nutrients that allow soil- and insect-associated fungi and bacteria to grow. These microorganisms are metabolic specialists that convert proteins and lipids into foul-smelling compounds such as cadaverine, putrescine, and ammonia, whose signature may persist in the soil long after a corpse has been removed.

Science, this issue p. 158


Vertebrate corpse decomposition provides an important stage in nutrient cycling in most terrestrial habitats, yet microbially mediated processes are poorly understood. Here we combine deep microbial community characterization, community-level metabolic reconstruction, and soil biogeochemical assessment to understand the principles governing microbial community assembly during decomposition of mouse and human corpses on different soil substrates. We find a suite of bacterial and fungal groups that contribute to nitrogen cycling and a reproducible network of decomposers that emerge on predictable time scales. Our results show that this decomposer community is derived primarily from bulk soil, but key decomposers are ubiquitous in low abundance. Soil type was not a dominant factor driving community development, and the process of decomposition is sufficiently reproducible to offer new opportunities for forensic investigations.

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