A conserved interdomain microbial network underpins cadaver decomposition despite environmental variables

Zachary M. Burcham, Aeriel D. Belk, Bridget B. McGivern, Amina Bouslimani, Parsa Ghadermazi, Cameron Martino, Liat Shenhav, Anru R. Zhang, Pixu Shi, Alexandra Emmons, Heather L. Deel, Zhenjiang Zech Xu, Victoria Nieciecki, Qiyun Zhu, Michael Shaffer, Morgan Panitchpakdi, Kelly C. Weldon, Kalen Cantrell, Asa Ben-Hur, Sasha C. ReedGreg C. Humphry, Gail Ackermann, Daniel McDonald, Siu Hung Joshua Chan, Melissa Connor, Derek Boyd, Jake Smith, Jenna M.S. Watson, Giovanna Vidoli, Dawnie Steadman, Aaron M. Lynne, Sibyl Bucheli, Pieter C. Dorrestein, Kelly C. Wrighton, David O. Carter, Rob Knight, Jessica L. Metcalf

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Microbial breakdown of organic matter is one of the most important processes on Earth, yet the controls of decomposition are poorly understood. Here we track 36 terrestrial human cadavers in three locations and show that a phylogenetically distinct, interdomain microbial network assembles during decomposition despite selection effects of location, climate and season. We generated a metagenome-assembled genome library from cadaver-associated soils and integrated it with metabolomics data to identify links between taxonomy and function. This universal network of microbial decomposers is characterized by cross-feeding to metabolize labile decomposition products. The key bacterial and fungal decomposers are rare across non-decomposition environments and appear unique to the breakdown of terrestrial decaying flesh, including humans, swine, mice and cattle, with insects as likely important vectors for dispersal. The observed lockstep of microbial interactions further underlies a robust microbial forensic tool with the potential to aid predictions of the time since death.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)595-613
Number of pages19
JournalNature Microbiology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2024

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Microbiology
  • Immunology
  • Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology
  • Genetics
  • Microbiology (medical)
  • Cell Biology


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