EAST LANSING, MI (WLNS) – All this month 6 News is Celebrating Spartans. We’re going to take you to the science lab and it’ll make you feel like you’re in an episode of CSI.
Thanks to a grant from the Department of Justice, researchers at Michigan State University are working directly with the Detroit Medical Examiner’s Office.
They plan to study how things like fungi, bacteria, and insects offer clues when someone dies.
While the research is still ongoing, scientists believe it could play a crucial role in how crime scene investigators solve homicides and other deaths.
MSU is the first university to work with a law enforcement agency, in this type of capacity.
Every death investigation is handled differently; whether investigators walk into a crime scene or determine a person has died due to natural causes, there’s a protocol they follow.
Almost always, though, the body ends up at the medical examiner’s office.
There, medical investigators look for a couple of factors to determine the time between a person’s death, and when the body was found, and researchers at MSU are working to add another step to that process.
Everywhere you go, everything you do, you’re surrounded by single-cell organisms called microbes.
They’re tiny organisms such as bacteria and fungi you can’t see with the naked eye, but you can see them here.
The entire human body is made up of them. They’re in the air we breathe, the keyboard we type on and as MSU researchers have discovered, their communities can provide details about the deadly truth.
“Our hypothesis is that microbial communities can be used to determine or estimate how long someone’s been dead, perhaps where they’ve been in and around the Wayne county are, assuming they’re found there,” said Eric Benbow, MSU entomologist and osteopathic medical specialist.
Eric Benbow is an entomologist and osteopathic medical specialist at Michigan State University.
He and his team of researchers are working directly with the Medical Examiner’s office in Detroit to collect and study the microbial communities that live in dead bodies.
“When you die, your immune system stops, your blood stops flowing, right, but the microbes are still there. Certain microbes start to monopolize on the new conditions,” said Benbow.
Here’s how the process works. Using a sterile Q-tip an investigator or medical examiner will swab different parts of a dead body, including the ears, over the nose, the mouth and belly button, and then send those samples to MSU.
“This is where we store the microbiome, post microbiome samples,” Benbow said as he opened up the freezer where all of the samples are stored.
The samples are sorted and stored in the lab’s freezers.
Using a specific machine, the DNA is extracted from those cells and then sequenced.
The process is much like DNA finger printing for human DNA. By doing this, researchers are able to differentiate between the microbial communities in your ears, versus your mouth, nose and belly button.
Because when a person dies, the microbial communities change, so different species becomes more or less abundant.
“Much like with insects, we think, and there’s been several papers recently that suggest that understanding how predictable that change in the community is, might be important for determining how long someone’s been dead,” Benbow said.
Working with Wayne County has allowed researchers to sample a broad spectrum of microbes from dead bodies that have decomposed under different circumstances with various types of chemicals in their body.
For instance, those chemicals could vary depending on the lifestyle you live or the last thing you ate before you died.
Different microbial communities are associated with certain ailments, like Crohn’s disease or Schizophrenia, which could then determine how someone died.
“Anywhere from a natural death, or heart attack, to suicide, to homicides, perhaps if you have died of an overdose of drugs,” Benbow said.
In one case, MSU researchers were able to compare the microbial communities from the remains of an old body in Lansing, to one from Detroit.
Through their research, they found similar fingerprints between the two.
It’s allowed MSU scientists to build their research and add to the list of their postmortem human microbiome database, one that Benbow says, has potential to open the doors to a whole new level of forensic analysis.
“We could confirm that with these investigations that the microbiome that we swabbed from that individual and from many others, right, in similar circumstances, they have always had the similar microbiome.”
This kind of research hasn’t gone through litigation, so it has not been presented as evidence in the court of law.
However Benbow says, because of its potential it’s something we could see later down the road.
Right now, Benbow and his team are working with some of the top labs in the nation to edit a book called “Forensic Microbiology,” which is about how microbes can be used routinely in forensic investigations.
Benbow has also published a series of books related to his studies. To find out more, click here.