Pennsylvania Researchers Study the "Smell of Death"

Two researchers from the Penn State University recently presented a report at the 238th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS), which detailed work they have been conducting in an attempt to establish the chemical fingerprint from the smell of death.

According to Dan Sykes, a lecturer in the Dept. of Chemistry, and Sara Jones, a grad student in the Dept. of Forensic Chemistry, their research could lead to an electronic device that could be used to detect human bodies buried in disasters and at crime scenes. The device would also be able to determine how much time had elapsed since death.

"Decomposing bodies release more than 30 compounds. Some, like the aptly-named "putrescine" and "cadaverine," develop early in the decomposition process," reads a press release issued by ACS.

Past studies on the smell of decomposition were conducted using donated human bodies; however, most had been dead for several days, making it impossible to detect putrescine, cadaverine, and other compounds that appear very early in the decomposition process. Jones and Sykes solved this problem by using pigs that had been euthanized under humane conditions. As a result, they were able to study decomposition immediately after death. Pigs were also chosen because of their similarities to humans.

"They go through the same phases of decomposition as humans, as well as the same number of stages," Jones said, adding, "And those stages last about as long in pigs as they do in humans before complete decomposition occurs and only the bones remain."

During testing, the deceased pigs were placed inside odor-collecting units, equipped with special sensors designed to capture gases that are emitted during decomposition. Data from the sensors was collected every six to 12 hours over the course of a week. Upon studying the data, Sykes and Jones identified a clear chemical profile.

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