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Title: Dating death : forensic taphonomy and the postmortem interval
Author: Rogers, Christopher
ISNI:       0000 0004 2712 7028
Awarding Body: University of Wolverhampton
Current Institution: University of Wolverhampton
Date of Award: 2010
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Determining the postmortem interval (PMI) remains one of the most important but challenging factors to establish in a suspicious death investigation. Unfortunately, as time passes current methods lose accuracy and only allow investigators to approximate how long ago death occurred. Bodies interred in clandestine graves prove particularly challenging due to an abundance of variables that need to be taken into consideration. Due to the problems associated with determining the PMI of buried remains this study will utilise macroscopic, microscopic, molecular, chemical and microbiological analyses to systematically document the decompositional changes to human hair and porcine cartilage and bone in a burial environment. The aim was to correlate decompositional changes with time and develop new methods for estimating the PMI of remains found in this context. Whole trotters (from which the cartilage was harvested) exhibited decompositional changes including darkening of the dermis, skin slippage, liquefaction of soft tissues and complete skeletonisation. The decompositional changes to cartilage included a loss of cartilage covering articular facets, changes in colour and texture, formation of orthorhombic crystals, a change in surface pH and colonisation by bacteria. The bacteria found on the cartilage surface were in close proximity to the crystals and when cultured on a B-41 medium were found to precipitate crystals of the same morphology and chemical composition to those found on the cartilage surface. Three species of bacteria (Acinetobacter calcoaceticus, Acinetobacter iwoffii and Grimontia hollisae) were identified based on gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC-MS) of their fatty acids and one species (Comamonas sp.) was identified by DNA analysis. Formation of crystals on goat and cow cartilage proved that this was not a porcine specific phenomenon. Human hair exhibited a gradual degradation over time but this was dependent on the characteristics of the burial environment. Decompositional changes included colonisation by fungi, erosions to the cortical surface and formation of tunnels and breaks to the hair shaft. Two fungal species (Aspergillus fumigatus and Penicillium sp.) were identified based on DNA analysis of fungal ribosomal (rDNA) internally transcribed spacer (ITS) regions. The Penicillium sp. was linked with fungal tunnelling of hair. Bone exhibited little modification over time but changes were observed. These included a change in colour of the cortical surface, a change in colour and gradual loss of bone marrow and erosions, cracking and flaking of the cortical bone. Fungi were found to colonise both the bone marrow and bone surface. Whole piglets were buried to document the time period taken to reach skeletonisation. This data was used as a correction factor and combined with the bone results to give an overall time period for the decomposition changes observed. The results of this study suggest that the decompositional changes to cartilage could be used to determine the postmortem interval of buried remains. However, the degradation of hair and bone was too variable to be of use in this context.
Supervisor: Schmerer, Wera ; Whitehead, Michael ; Sutton, Raul Sponsor: RCAS (University of Wolverhampton studentship)
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: decomposition ; taphonomy ; postmortem interval ; hair ; cartilage ; bone ; crystals ; bacteria ; fungi