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The Bugs Know

Aficionados of crime novels and television shows know that bugs can be used to pinpoint how long a body has been left exposed to the elements. As NPR's Rob Stein reports for All Things Considered, the other bugs — microbes — may also be able to help to solve crimes.

At the Southeast Texas Applied Forensic Science Facility, researchers from Sam Houston State University and the University of Colorado are investigating how bacteria on and around a decomposing body change over time. If they do, they could be used to help refine time-of-death estimates for forensic and police investigations.

"We're really pushing the envelope of microbial forensic science," Colorado's Jessica Metcalf says. She and her colleagues have found that bacteria can be used to determine how long — to within three days — a mouse has been dead, and they are now extending their work to people.

"We're looking for a microbial clock," Metcalf adds.