(From Buckeye Crime Writers Board President Patrick Stuart)
“The corpse dumps a huge flood of nutrients into the earth—a blend of fats and proteins that stands out among the carbohydrates typically found in leaf litter. Quickly, a dedicated coterie of bacteria, fungi, and nematode worms emerges to dine on this artisanal feast.”
Great… now I’m hungry. BTW, that wasn’t Lee Child or Patricia Cornwell, but Ed Yong, science journalist for The Atlantic magazine. Ed was talking about the “necrobiome,” or the world of microbes that digest a body after death. We’ve all heard about the use of insects in forensics, and how the different bug types and growth stages can help determine the time a corpse has been decomposing. But what if it’s winter? Not so reliable. However, something that wants to eat us 24/7, in any season is, you guessed it: microbes.
The beautiful thing about microbes is that they work with predictable, clock-like efficiency. How it happens: Dude gets murdered and dumped somewhere (you can work out the how’s and why’s). The ground already has microbes in it, but they’re scattered. Plus, the dead vegetable matter on top is carbohydrate-rich. What microbes love, though, is a nice ooze of fats, proteins and nitrogen, which is just what the body provides. So when those microbes sense food, invade, party and reproduce (kind of like an itty-bitty version of Sixteen Candles), investigators can then determine the time of death. Sometimes within three days, even after several weeks of decomposition.
What’s great is that microbes work the same for virtually any dead thing, any time of year. Once they’re in, they’re in. However, keep in mind factors like antibiotics or drug use that may or may not affect their digestive habits. Which is why experiments continue at places like the Sam Houston State University Outdoor Research Facility (a.k.a., “the body farm”). Note: this is not the kind of farm where you take your toddlers to see calves and baby goats (I’ll never make that mistake again). Point being that nothing’s perfect, so homicide investigators may include this information with other studies to reinforce their findings. Which means your fictional detective/prosecutor/private investigator now has one more forensic tool in their arsenal.
So, anyone up for some oatmeal? Fine, more for me… oh, and keep writing.