Jessica L Metcalf

Assistant Professor

Colorado State University

I bring together the fields of vertebrate evolution, microbial ecology, human health, and forensic science with innovative research tools to study the interactions between microbes and vertebrates during life and after death. I use high-throughput sequencing of bacterial and microbial eukaryotic communities to study how microbial communities change in response to disturbance events in both short time scales (decomposition of mammalian taxa) and long time scales (human population shifts to a western diet). In particular, I am interested in temporal/time-series data sets that allow us to understand the dynamics and predictability of microbial community change.

Research on the vertebrate microbiome has the potential to transform our understanding of health, and has tremendous potential to improve animal and human medicine. One of the most exciting frontiers in microbiome research is the interplay between microbes, the immune system, and vertebrate health and disease. In addition to a range of vertebrate host microbiome studies (e.g. horses, monkeys, birds, bats ...), I am involved in several exciting projects focused on the human microbiome and cancer and cancer therapies. 

My research also explores the use of microbes to understand the past. I study ancient microbes preserved in coprolites (ancient fecal material) to characterize the gut microbiome of ancient humans, which will help us understand how our gut microbiomes have changed in the recent past due to western practices such as widespread use of antibiotics, high fat diets, and intensive hygiene practices.  

I became interested in understanding the role of microbes in decomposition when I began studying microbes preserved in ancient fecal material.  This interest led me to a new field of research - microbial forensics. For the last five years, I have been exploring the use of microbes for estimating how long a body has been dead. After death, microbial communities change in, on, and near the body in a clock-like manner. We can use this clock as a forensics tool.



I am excited to join the faculty in Colorado State University's Department of Animal Sciences this Fall. Go Rams!

Read and listen to some of the highlights about our recent paper published in the journal Science

The New York Times Magazine: The Living Dead. by Peter Smith

National Public RadioTiny Witnesses. by Rob Stein 

The Atlantic: Meet the Necrobiome: The Predictable Microbes That Will Eat Your Dying Corpse. by Ed Yong

Newsweek: Using the Human Microbiome to Predict Time of Death. By Sena Christian