Journal Published Online: 01 May 2002
Volume 47, Issue 3

Decomposition Chemistry of Human Remains: A New Methodology for Determining the Postmortem Interval



This study was conducted to characterize the chemistry associated with the decomposition of human remains with the objective of identifying time-dependent biomarkers of decomposition. The purpose of this work was to develop an accurate and precise method for measuring the postmortem interval (PMI) of human remains. Eighteen subjects were placed within a decay research facility throughout a four-year time period and allowed to decompose naturally. Field autopsies were performed and tissue samples were regularly collected until the tissues decomposed to the point where they were no longer recognizable (encompassing a cumulative degree hour (CDH) range of approximately 1000 (3 weeks)). Analysis of the biomarkers (amino acids, neurotransmitters, and decompositional by-products) in various organs (liver, kidney, heart, brain, muscle) revealed distinct patterns useful for determining the PMI when based on CDHs. Proper use of the methods described herein allow for PMIs so accurate that the estimate is limited by the ability to obtain correct temperature data at a crime scene rather than sample variability.

Author Information

Vass, AA
Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge, TN
Barshick, S-A
Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge, TN
Sega, G
Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge, TN
Caton, J
Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge, TN
Skeen, JT
Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge, TN
Love, JC
Regional Forensic Center, Memphis, TN
Synstelien, JA
University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN
Pages: 14
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Stock #: JFS15294J
ISSN: 0022-1198
DOI: 10.1520/JFS15294J