Your Microbiome Keeps Working After You Die

Your postmortem Microbiome teams up with microbes in the soil to ‘recycle’ your body

Katrina Paulson

--

Circle Of Life, Martin Stranka — Image Source: Wikimedia

You likely know that you, me, and everyone else have whole communities made of trillions of microorganisms within us. Scientists began intensely studying our microbiome only a couple of decades ago, but they’ve already learned quite a bit.

We now know these communities are vital to our health and work together to keep us alive by creating essential vitamins, helping us digest our food, protecting us from infections, and much more. In return, they get a safe, cozy home inside us and a regular food supply. But what happens to our microbes when we die? You might assume they die when our bodies do. I sure did.

Without a functioning body to keep the microbes warm and fed, I thought they’d starve and freeze to death. Or, if they do manage to survive, they’d surely die once our bodies decay and they’re exposed to the cold and harsh environment beyond our bodies. Right? Nope. According to new research, the microbes survive our body’s decay process. In fact, they help the process along.

Microbes Shift Focus After We Die

Death understandably disrupts the symbiotic ecosystems within us by bringing everything to a standstill. Yet, just because our bodies die, it doesn’t mean everything alive within us does. Instead, our microbiome shifts gears and adapts to their new circumstances.

See, when we die, our hearts stop circulating oxygen-rich blood throughout our bodies, triggering autolysis, which is basically when our oxygen-deprived cells begin cannibalizing themselves. The enzymes within these cells digest proteins, fats, and carbohydrates for controlled growth and energy when we’re alive, but when autolysis occurs, they shift to consuming other proteins, membranes, DNA, and other parts of cells.

Symbiotic bacterial communities happen to find the remains of this cellular breakdown a delicious substitute for their missing usual source of nutrition from our digestive system. Plus, without our immune system to keep them in check, they can chow down without looking over their shoulder.

--

--

Katrina Paulson

I wonder about humanity, questions with no answers, and new discoveries. Then I write about them here and on substack! https://curiousadventure.substack.com