Monitoring the extent of vertical and lateral movement of human decomposition products through sediment using cholesterol as a biomarker



Publication Details

Luong, S., Forbes, S. L., Wallman, J. F. & Roberts, R. G. (2018). Monitoring the extent of vertical and lateral movement of human decomposition products through sediment using cholesterol as a biomarker. Forensic Science International, 285 93-104.


Due to the lack of human decomposition research facilities available in different geographical regions, the extent of movement of human decomposition products from a cadaver into various sedimentary environments, in different climates, has not been able to be studied in detail. In our study, a human cadaver was placed on the surface of a designated plot at the Australian Facility for Taphonomic Experimental Research (AFTER), the only human decomposition facility in Australia, where the natural process of decomposition was allowed to progress over 14 days in the Australian summer. Sediment columns (approximately 1 m deep) were collected at lateral distances of 0.25 m, 0.5 m, 1.0 m and 2.5 m in each of four directions from the centre of the torso. Plot elevation and weather data were also collected. Each sediment column was subdivided, dried and homogenised. A sample was isolated from each sediment subdivision, extracted with hexane, and the hexane extract cleaned with citrate buffer (pH 3), filtered and spiked with cholesterol-D 7 internal standard. After derivatisation with BSTFA + 1% TMCS, cholesterol was monitored in the samples using targeted gas chromatography tandem mass spectrometry analysis. A positive result for decomposition products was given if the cholesterol abundance in the test sample was higher than that detected in the 'control' samples of a similar substrate type collected prior to cadaver placement. Within the confines of the experimental design and the measured parameters, lateral leaching was observed over distances of up to 2.5 m from the centre of the torso, which was the maximum distance tested in the study. Vertical leaching was detected to depths of up to 49 cm below the ground surface. Such data can aid the development of policies related to plot sizing and sediment renewal and regeneration at other human decomposition facilities and at cemeteries. The density and distribution of cholesterol surrounding the cadaver in this study can also help forensic investigators interpret cases involving remains that have been moved or scavenged.

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