When people die, not everything dies with them. Memories survive, and so do microbes. For microbiology students at Mississippi State University, these microbes are helping piece together the last moments of a person’s life.
While many scientific studies have explored the importance of living microbes inside healthy human beings, little information is available about microorganisms' roles after a person dies. Learning more opens up a world of possibility in the fields of criminal investigation, forensics and related studies because the process of decomposition can yield important information such as time and cause, and maybe even manner, of death.
Helping answer questions that stump law enforcement officials and haunt suffering families is a personal mission for Mississippi State assistant professor of microbiology Heather Jordan. Several years ago, Jordan struggled to understand the tragic circumstances surrounding the loss of her brother, whose body went undiscovered for weeks.
Through a partnership between Mississippi State University and other university programs, students at MSU have an opportunity to experience death in real life situations, examining microbes swabbed from the bodies of actual crime victims. Their work is the first of its kind and could possibly impact results of ongoing and even unsolved investigations while helping create new methods of investigation.
One particular area of interest for student researchers is exploring the implications of microbes on establishing time of death, which can be a critical factor in crime investigation. Microbe research is taking place at MSU with the support of a grant from the National Institute of Justice, an agency of the U.S. Justice Department.
The program also aims to accelerate crime scene training for emergency responders and pioneer improvements in protocol for collecting evidence.