The ‘Microbial Clock’

Here’s my latest article for Newsweek, “Using the Human Microbiome to Predict Time of Death,” inspired by a seminar visit by Dr. Jessica Metcalf during my time in the Ted Scripps Fellowship for Environmental Journalism at CU Boulder. Read an excerpt below.

Brandon Anderson

Flickr Creative Commons photo by Brandon Anderson.

Using the Microbiome to Predict Time of Death

By Sena Christian

On a Tuesday evening in July 2013, a woman in her 50s was found bound, gagged, stabbed to death and wrapped in a carpet in the driveway of her Honolulu home. The woman’s ex-husband hadn’t heard from her since the two had dinner the Saturday before, and he grew worried, so he went over to her house. No one answered the door and her car was missing, so he flagged down a security guard from a building next door. They investigated and quickly noticed a foul odor emanating from around the back of the house. The police were called in and they soon discovered the decaying body, rolled up in a moldy rug tucked away out of view in the driveway. Then they started piecing together evidence about her murder.

In cases like this, in which the body is found in some state of decomposition, one of the key mysteries is the time line of the crime. Investigators may look at cellphone records to see when the deceased sent her last text message. Or ask colleagues when she left work. They might measure the corpse’s temperature to see how much it has cooled or examine insect infestations in a body found in a shallow grave. But these methods can’t be used in all homicide scenarios, and all have flaws. A body’s temperature, for instance, will cool differently depending on if it’s been left in a sunlit room or submerged in cold water. And the more days that elapse between when someone dies and the body is found, the more difficult deciphering the time of death becomes.

“A lot of estimates for time of death really aren’t scientific at all,” says David Carter, an associate professor of forensic science at Chaminade University of Honolulu. For most deaths that’s perfectly fine, because they’re natural, the result of aging or illness. With homicides, though, that detail can be critical, as detectives use it to substantiate witness testimony and determine a timeline of the crime and validate alibis, excluding people from the suspect list. Investigators may soon have a much better—and more scientific—tool at their disposal to help with all that: the “microbial clock.”

… Read the rest of the article here …

Cities Figure Out How To Accommodate Urban Farming

For my Ted Scripps Fellowship in Environmental Journalism, I’m focusing on projects related to sustainable farming. I’ll be writing several articles on this subject over the course of the next nine months, and have begun with one for Earth Island Journal on how cities facilitate or impede urban farming. Here’s an excerpt:

Anne Cure owns and operates Cure Organic Farm outside the city limits of Boulder, Colorado. She rents eight acres of open space from the City of Boulder. (Photo/Cole Allen)

Anne Cure runs Cure Organic Farm outside the city limits of Boulder, CO. (Photo/Cole Allen)

Across the US, Cities Struggle to Figure Out How to Accommodate Urban Farming

Widespread interest in urban agriculture is forcing local authorities to re-examine rules that prohibit farming in cities

By Sena Christian

Sacramento has worked diligently over the past two years to brand itself as America’s farm-to-fork capital, hosting local food festivals, wine tastings, and gala dinners featuring the city’s premier chefs. Tickets for this year’s dinner, at $175 dollars each, sold out in five minutes. The Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau has even organized a cattle drive and tractor parade through downtown.

Sure, nearly 1.4 million acres of farmland exist around the city, which is located in California’s vast and fertile Central Valley region, and the climate is amenable to growing produce year-round (drought complications notwithstanding). But there are no urban farms in Sacramento. The closest and most prominent urban farm, the 55-acre Soil Born Farms, exists outside the city limits.

Sacramento is relatively progressive when it comes to gardening: The city already allows frontyard vegetable gardens, urban chickens, and community gardens on private land and runs 13 community gardens on public land. But farming — that is, growing crops to sell — has fallen behind.

… Read the rest of the article here …

Way High Up

The Ted Scripps Fellows recently walked the alpine tundra at Niwot Ridge in the Indian Peaks Wilderness in Colorado, reaching an elevation of 11,300 feet.

Niwot Ridge3

Alpine tundra in the Indian Peaks Wilderness.

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Fellows, at an elevation of 11,300, learned about the work of the Mountain Research Station

Fellows at Niwot Ridge in Colorado.

Fellows at Niwot Ridge in Colorado.

 

It’s Go Time

I’ve been in Boulder for a month now. Moved here from Northern California to take part in the Ted Scripps Fellowship in Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado. After moving here and settling in, and brief forays to New York for a wedding and New Orleans for the annual Society of Environmental Journalists conference, I finally had a moment to pause and think … and realize I had gone three whole weeks without writing a single article! What the heck?! That’s a record for me. Determined not to waste another second, I have officially begun my fellowship project, focusing on sustainable farming. I interviewed farmers from Indiana, Illinois, California and Colorado this week, including the operator of Cure Organic Farm and interns with the Farmer Cultivation Center (see below):

Anne Cure owns and operates Cure Organic Farm in Boulder, Colorado.

Anne Cure owns and operates Cure Organic Farm in Boulder, Colorado. (Photo/Cole Allen)

Mel Piazza is a first-year intern at the Farmer Cultivation Center in Niwot, Colorado.

Mel Piazza is a first-year intern at the Farmer Cultivation Center in Niwot, Colorado. (Photo/Cole Allen)