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Detecting personal microbiota signatures at artificial crime scenes

NCJ Number
Forensic Science International Volume: 313 Issue: 9 Dated: 2020
Date Published

Since when mapped to the environments people interact daily with the 36 million microbial cells per hour that humans emit, leaving a trail of evidence that can be leveraged for forensic analysis, the current study employed 16S rRNA amplicon sequencing to map unique microbial sequence variants between human skin and building surfaces in three experimental conditions: over time during controlled and uncontrolled incidental interactions with a door handle, and during multiple mock burglaries in ten real residences.


The study demonstrated that humans (n = 30) left behind microbial signatures that can be used to track interaction with various surfaces within a building, but the likelihood of accurately detecting the specific burglar for a given home was between 20–25 percent. Also, the human microbiome contains rare microbial taxa that can be combined to create a unique microbial profile, which when compared to 600 other individuals can improve the ability to link an individual ‘burglar’ to a residence. In total, 5,512 discriminating, non-singleton unique exact sequence variants (uESVs) were identified as unique to an individual, with a minimum of 1 and a maximum of 568, suggesting some people maintain a greater degree of unique taxa compared to the population of 600. Approximate 60–77 percent of the unique exact sequence variants originated from the hands of participants, and these microbial discriminators spanned 36 phyla, but were dominated by the Proteobacteria (34 percent). A fitted regression generated to determine whether an intruder’s uESVs found on door handles in an office decayed over time in the presence or absence of office workers, found no significant shift in proportion of uESVs over time, irrespective of the presence of office workers. Although it was possible to detect the correct burglars’ microbiota as having contributed to the invaded space, the predictions were very weak compared to accepted forensic standards. This suggests that at this time 16S rRNA amplicon sequencing of the built environment microbiota cannot be used as a reliable trace evidence standard for criminal investigations. (publisher abstract modified)

Date Published: January 1, 2020