The Campagna lab published their work “Comparative Decomposition of Humans and Pigs: Soil Biogeochemistry, Microbial Activity and Metabolomic Profiles” in Frontiers In Microbiology.
Vertebrate decomposition processes have important ecological implications and, in the case of human decomposition, forensic applications. Animals, especially domestic pigs (Sus scrofa), are frequently used as human analogs in forensic decomposition studies. However, recent research shows that humans and pigs do not necessarily decompose in the same manner, with differences in decomposition rates, patterns, and scavenging.
The objective of this study was to extend these observations and determine if human and pig decomposition in terrestrial settings have different local impacts on soil biogeochemistry and microbial activity. In two seasonal trials (summer and winter), we simultaneously placed replicate human donors and pig carcasses on the soil surface and allowed them to decompose. In both human and pig decomposition-impacted soils, they observed elevated microbial respiration, protease activity, and ammonium, indicative of enhanced microbial ammonification and limited nitrification in soil during soft tissue decomposition. Soil respiration was comparable between summer and winter, indicating similar microbial activity; however, the magnitude of the pulse of decomposition products was greater in the summer.
Using untargeted metabolomics and lipidomics approaches, they identified 38 metabolites and 54 lipids that were elevated in both human and pig decomposition-impacted soils. The most frequently detected metabolites were anthranilate, creatine, 5-hydroxyindoleacetic acid, taurine, xanthine, N-acetylglutamine, acetyllysine, and sedoheptulose 1/7-phosphate; the most frequently detected lipids were phosphatidylethanolamine and monogalactosyldiacylglycerol. Decomposition soils were also significantly enriched in metabolites belonging to amino acid metabolic pathways and the TCA cycle.
Comparing humans and pigs, they noted several differences in soil biogeochemical responses. Soils under humans decreased in pH as decomposition progressed, while under pigs, soil pH increased. Additionally, under pigs we observed significantly higher ammonium and protease activities compared to humans. We identified several metabolites that were elevated in human decomposition soil compared to pig decomposition soil, including 2-oxo-4-methylthiobutanoate, sn-glycerol 3-phosphate, and tryptophan, suggesting different decomposition chemistries and timing between the two species.
Together, this work shows that human and pig decomposition differ in terms of their impacts on soil biogeochemistry and microbial decomposer activities, adding to our understanding of decomposition ecology and informing the use of non-human models in forensic research.
The group also published their work “Enterococcus faecalis Readily Adapts Membrane Phospholipid Composition to Environmental and Genetic Perturbation” in Frontiers In Microbiology.
The bacterial lipid membrane, consisting both of fatty acid (acyl) tails and polar head groups, responds to changing conditions through alteration of either the acyl tails and/or head groups. This plasticity is critical for cell survival as it allows maintenance of both the protective nature of the membrane as well as functioning membrane protein complexes. Bacteria that live in fatty-acid rich environments, such as those found in the human host, can exploit host fatty acids to synthesize their own membranes, in turn, altering their physiology. Enterococcus faecalis is such an organism: it is a commensal of the mammalian intestine where it is exposed to fatty-acid rich bile, as well as a major cause of hospital infections during which it is exposed to fatty acid containing-serum. Within, the group employed an untargeted approach to detect the most common phospholipid species of E. faecalis OG1RF via ultra-high performance liquid chromatography high-resolution mass spectrometry (UHPLC-HRMS).
The group examined not only how the composition responds upon exposure to host fatty acids but also how deletion of genes predicted to synthesize major polar head groups impact lipid composition. Regardless of genetic background and differing basal lipid composition, all strains were able to alter their lipid composition upon exposure to individual host fatty acids. Specific gene deletion strains, however, had altered survival to membrane damaging agents. Combined, the enterococcal lipidome is highly resilient in response to both genetic and environmental perturbation, likely contributing to stress survival.