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At A Texas Body Farm, Studying The Decay Of Donated Corpses

American forensics researchers place human corpses in so-called “body farms” to study their decomposition for a variety of sometimes surprising reasons.

Texas students working on the skeleton of a donated corpse
Texas students working on the skeleton of a donated corpse
Kai Kupferschmidt

HUNTSVILLE â€" In the shadows of pine trees, a woman in a white overalls leans over the dead body of a fat, naked man. She brushes his cheek with a cotton swab, as eight scientists look on. "Can you apply a bit more pressure, to get some DNA?" one scientist asks. Adds another, "but not too much, don't harm the skin."

It's been a week since the body was placed here. Two tattoos and a scar are reminiscent of the life he must have lived. But the scientists don't care about the past. They're interested in what happens to the body after death, when bacteria, protozoans and fungus will entirely decompose the body over the next couple of weeks. They eat through the skin that once felt, the heart that once beat, the nerve cells that recorded all kinds of memories. For nature, the corpse is a source of nutrients â€" nitrogen, potassium, sulfate and other elements, dissipated bit by bit. Dust to dust.

Geneticist Jessica Metcalf wants to understand exactly what happens during this process. This may help to determine more precisely the time of death in some murder investigations. That's why she's come to the Southeast Texas Applied Forensic Science Facility (STAFS) in Huntsville, Texas, with her colleagues this morning. In these woods, donated corpses decompose in the name of science. Americans call places like these "body farms." Behind a big fence, there are no flowers. Only death is blooming: red and orange gashes, green and yellowish rotting skin. Bones sit next to a white skull. An old man lies in a plastic tub, his grey hair floating in the water.

"I never would have thought about ending up here," Metcalf says. As a student, she considered going to medical school. "But I was even incapable of dissecting a worm, or a frog." So instead she pursued for gene technology. Her doctoral thesis was about the genetic material of extinct animals, which means she also studied fossilized animal excretions. She later became interested in human microbiota, the community of viruses, bacteria and protozoans that live in our intestines and skin. One of the main questions for researchers is how microbiota have changed over the course of human evolution.

Researchers at Texas State's Forensic Anthropology Center â€" Source: Official website

That's how Metcalf also began studying decomposition. In her laboratory, she studied 40 dead mice, analyzing their bodies, taking samples and isolating their genetic material. That's how she got a snapshot of the microbiota that live in corpses. Metcalf found a pattern: Different mice she analyzed the same day had the same communities of microbiota. Different days, different microbiota.

And that could represent a significant breakthrough. The always identical succession of microscopic scavengers seem to obey a sort of microbes clock that starts to tick at the very moment of death. Even today it's difficult to determine the exact times of death, a task that is critical for murder investigations. That's why Metcalf and her colleagues have moved on to human corpses. A first study seems to confirm the information obtained via mice.

"During the first 25 days, we are able to determine the time of death with a preciseness of plus or minus two to four days," Metcalf says. Now they are researching how the weather and nature influence body decomposition.

Research methodology

The research team wants to scatter 36 corpses over the next 12 months, three per season at three different locations in the United States. There are so many questions: Where and how should samples be taken? How fresh do the corpses need to be? Should they have been cooled first, or even frozen? Should they be placed on their stomachs or backs? Each detail could be important for study. Over recent years, dubious forensic methods have repeatedly been applied in court, leading to innocent people going to prison because of flawed statements from experts.

The first body farm opened in the southern U.S. state of Tennessee in 1981, and others soon followed. Today there are six such American farms, and one in Australia is about to open.

Life after death

Sibyl Bucheli studies insects, especially those living in corpses. When visiting the body farm, she wears dark clothes and boots. "Team Player" is written on her cap in pink glitter lettering. Sitting next to a corpse, she points to the small orange mites crawling over the body.

This particular corpse was placed here in November. The wizened skin has a yellowish-brown color, and it's difficult to tell whether the body was a man or a woman because there's a hug hole where the genitals once were. "Vultures prefer genitals and eyes," Bucheli says. The arms are spread away from the body, which happens when they inflate. A scientist calls it the "death dance."

Bucheli is interested in the microbes on the corpse. The DNA she obtains is similar to the what was collected from Metcalf's mice. When someone dies, it's not the end â€" at least not for the billions of microbes that a body carries on and inside it. Because the immune system has ceased fighting them, they proliferate. The bacteria produces gas, which inflates the body until it explodes. The oxygen entering the body then allows other bacteria to survive. Eventually nematodes, or minuscule worms, feed on the corpse's bacteria. The process seems exceptionally well organized. "And it's particularly efficient," Metcalf says.

There is most likely an ongoing war among the different microbes on this body, similar to the fight for resources of lions, hyenas and vultures. And this competition has led to efficient recycling over millions of years. The microbe's weapons can be interesting for humans too, and the research could lead to finding "a new type of antibiotics," she says.

The experience of working with dead bodies is indescribable, and something to which researchers never entirely grow accustomed. Looking at a dead body still shocks, but the scientists see it pragmatically.

Finally, they discuss what should happen with the bones. Even dry bones end up being consumed by microbes. Metcalf hopes there's some kind of a clock too because it could help to narrow down the moment of death, even if there's nothing left but the skeleton. They agree to take samples once a week.

Eventually, the work's done. After all this death, it's back to life. Time for lunch. "There's a great grill close by," one of the scientists says.

"Seriously?" Metcalf asks, shaking her head. "Ribs?"

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport


Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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