When most people think of pigs, they may think of the movie Babe, just a cute little animal or a barbecue, but when scientists and undergraduate students at UC Davis get involved, they think of nematodes.
Undergraduate students Alex Dedmon and Corwin Parker have designed an experiment where they examine the soil underneath a decomposing pig corpse. They want to see if the presence of nematodes, or microscopic worms, can serve as a new form of forensic evidence.
Steve Nadler, professor of nematology at UC Davis, believes the project is a good opportunity for the students to work independently and gain valuable experience.
“Students develop a project, and then progress with it. They need to design, collect and present data on the project,” he said.
In this project they work with nematodes, the most abundant multi-cellular organisms on Earth, according to Nadler. The worms are responsible for most diseases in developing countries.
Although problems with disease due to parasitic nematodes are not as prevalent in the U.S. as in developing countries, they are still present.
“Nematodes cause up to one billion dollars of loss in the United States,” Nadler said.
These parasites attach to leaves and roots of plants, causing many problems to the agricultural industry. However, nematodes can also be helpful, especially when considering that they may be able to aid forensic science in its examinations.
When an animal – or human – dies, such as the pig corpse in this experiment, the body starts to decompose; something you may be able to tell due to the nematodes, according to Nadler.
Corwin Parker, a senior evolution, ecology and biodiversity major, believes the project he and his partner Alex Dedmon, a senior entomology major, created is “another way to look at ecology.”
Dedmon explained that when something dies, such as a human or an animal, the body purges liquids and gases in the process of decomposition. This purging, along with the nematodes’ reactions “can help eliminate sources where a body may have been,” if it had been moved.
“Our goal was to see if there was any application in forensics,” Parker said.
Both Dedmon and Parker said they are enjoying their work on the project, and they were not squeamish when working with a pig’s corpse.
They admitted that they had already seen human cadavers and other dead animals before, meaning this experiment’s more gruesome parts were nothing out of the ordinary.
Dedmon said that soil enrichment research has helped them in their experiment, and they hope this experiment will further scientific research in the forensic field and beyond.
“It becomes another new tool in the vast toolbox,” Dedmon said.
The joy that Parker has at “looking at microscopes and seeing the little things run around” is helping them power through their second trial – with a third expected during the rainy season. They want to study how the nematodes adapt in this decomposing scenario.
The experiment is a good starting point for future research.
“It serves as the baseline data for a larger study,” Nadler said.
Nadler believes that the large input of nutrients present underneath the pig corpse could be significant in helping determine how helpful this may be for forensic science.
According to Nadler, nematodes will better help determine if bodies have been moved as a result of the detection of nutrients being moved.
While the experiment’s exposure remains at a local level, Dedmon and Parker believe that if they are able to have their findings published, the experiment could be worthy of further exposure.
ERIC C. LIPSKY can be reached at email@example.com.