We are in the age of –omics, where there have been tremendous advances in the ability to characterize the microbial world around us. The Human Microbiome Project and the many studies that have spun off of that momentous endeavor have shown that 90% of the human body is made up of a wide diversity of prokaryotic cells and that these communities have significant importance to human health. In a related fashion within entomology, my lab asks two general questions: 1) Is insect fitness influenced by the community of microbes living in or on them? and 2) What are the ecological interactions of insects with the microbial communities associated with their food resources? My lab seeks to answer these two questions for translation into human health applications. Given the rich history of research in insect-microbe interactions that has focused on vectoring pathogens and co-evolved symbionts, coupled with the advanced ability to identify culturable and non-culturable bacteria using high throughput sequencing, a new generation of inquiry into the importance of the insect microbiome and their interactions in nature has tremendous potential for insect science. It is within this realm of inquiry where my students and I test explicit hypotheses at the individual, population and community levels to better understand the importance of insect-microbe interactions to the ecology and evolution of carrion, aquatic and disease systems. The research in my lab centers on insect–microbial interactions within three systems: carrion decomposition, aquatic ecological networks and disease systems. I also have a joint appointment in the Department of Osteopathic Medical Specialties that is represented by on-going, nationally funded research on the human postmortem microbiome with applications in forensics and human health.
Industry Expertise (4)
Areas of Expertise (6)
Platinum Award (professional)
For DVD entitled "Forensic entomology: collection and preservation of entomological
evidence for court."
Telly Award (professional)
For DVD entitled "Forensic entomology: collection and preservation of entomological evidence
University of Dayton: Ph.D., Aquatic Biology 1999
University of Dayton: B.S., Biology 1994
Meet the "Living Dead": Forensic Scientists' New Weapon
“Our hope is that we will eventually be able to fine-tune this microbial clock, so that we can predict time of death to within several hours, rather than plus or minus two to three days,” adds Eric Benbow at Michigan State University in East Lansing, who collaborates with Tomberlin. So far, they’ve identified five potential core species, and they are now trying to validate this with further swabs taken from recently deceased humans...
The Living Dead
New York Times Magazine
Which was why Schmidt had teamed up with a group of scientists — Heather Jordan, a microbiologist in Mississippi; and Eric Benbow and Jennifer Pechal, two entomologists in Michigan — to systematically swab bodies during routine death investigations. They hoped to gather testimony from an unusual set of witnesses: the microbes that live after we die...
M. Eric Benbow: Why Do You Study Dead People?
Eric Benbow is an MSU entomologist and osteopathic medical specialist. He received a U.S. Department of Justice grant to partner with the city of Detroit and use his scientific expertise with bugs and bacteria to help solve murders...
MSU Partners with Detroit to Investigate Death sCenes
Michigan State University is using a more than $866,000 U.S. Department of Justice grant to help Detroit death-scene investigators examine these changing populations. The microbial communities may provide crucial details such as geographical location of death, gender, race, socioeconomic relations and more, said Eric Benbow, MSU entomologist and osteopathic medical specialist.
“We know how important the human microbiome, the bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms that live in your body, is to human health,” he said. “We, and other researchers, hypothesize that these communities play an equally important role in postmortem. We are the first university to work directly with medical examiners in this capacity, pioneering the collection of novel human microbiome information at the scene of death or during autopsy.”...
Journal Articles (5)
Preadult development of necrophagous flies is commonly recognized as an accurate method for estimating the minimum postmortem interval (PMImin). However, once the PMImin exceeds the duration of preadult development, the method is less accurate. Recently, fly puparial hydrocarbons were found to significantly change with weathering time in the field, indicating their potential use for PMImin estimates. However, additional studies are required to demonstrate how the weathering varies among species. In this study, the puparia of Chrysomya rufifacies were placed in the field to experience natural weathering to characterize hydrocarbon composition change over time. We found that weathering of the puparial hydrocarbons was regular and highly predictable in the field. For most of the hydrocarbons, the abundance decreased significantly and could be modeled using a modified exponent function. In addition, the weathering rate was significantly correlated with the hydrocarbon classes. The weathering rate of 2-methyl alkanes was significantly lower than that of alkenes and internal methyl alkanes, and alkenes were higher than the other two classes. For mono-methyl alkanes, the rate was significantly and positively associated with carbon chain length and branch position. These results indicate that puparial hydrocarbon weathering is highly predictable and can be used for estimating long-term PMImin.
The National Research Council issued a report in 2009 that heavily criticized the forensic sciences. The report made several recommendations that if addressed would allow the forensic sciences to develop a stronger scientific foundation. We suggest a roadmap for decomposition ecology and forensic entomology hinging on a framework built on basic research concepts in ecology, evolution, and genetics. Unifying both basic and applied research fields under a common umbrella of terminology and structure would facilitate communication in the field and the production of scientific results. It would also help to identify novel research areas leading to a better understanding of principal underpinnings governing ecosystem structure, function, and evolution while increasing the accuracy of and ability to interpret entomological evidence collected from crime scenes. By following the proposed roadmap, a bridge can be built between basic and applied decomposition ecology research, culminating in science that could withstand the rigors of emerging legal and cultural expectations.
Mycobacterium ulcerans is the causative agent of Buruli ulcer (BU), a destructive skin disease found predominantly in sub-Saharan Africa and south-eastern Australia. The precise mode(s) of transmission and environmental reservoir(s) remain unknown, but several studies have explored the role of aquatic invertebrate species. The purpose of this study was to investigate the environmental distribution of M. ulcerans in south-eastern Australia.
Buruli ulcer is a neglected emerging disease that has recently been reported in some countries as the second most frequent mycobacterial disease in humans after tuberculosis. Cases have been reported from at least 32 countries in Africa (mainly west), Australia, Southeast Asia, China, Central and South America, and the Western Pacific. Large lesions often result in scarring, contractual deformities, amputations, and disabilities, and in Africa, most cases of the disease occur in children between the ages of 4–15 years. This environmental mycobacterium, Mycobacterium ulcerans, is found in communities associated with rivers, swamps, wetlands, and human-linked changes in the aquatic environment, particularly those created as a result of environmental disturbance such as deforestation, dam construction, and agriculture. Buruli ulcer disease is often referred to as the “mysterious disease” because the mode of transmission remains unclear, although several hypotheses have been proposed. The above review reveals that various routes of transmission may occur, varying amongst epidemiological setting and geographic region, and that there may be some role for living agents as reservoirs and as vectors of M. ulcerans, in particular aquatic insects, adult mosquitoes or other biting arthropods. We discuss traditional and non-traditional methods for indicting the roles of living agents as biologically significant reservoirs and/or vectors of pathogens, and suggest an intellectual framework for establishing criteria for transmission. The application of these criteria to the transmission of M. ulcerans presents a significant challenge.
Mycobacterium ulcerans, the causative agent of Buruli ulcer, is an emerging environmental bacterium in Australia and West Africa. The primary risk factor associated with Buruli ulcer is proximity to slow moving water. Environmental constraints for disease are shown by the absence of infection in arid regions of infected countries. A particularly mysterious aspect of Buruli ulcer is the fact that endemic and non-endemic villages may be only a few kilometers apart within the same watershed. Recent studies suggest that aquatic invertebrate species may serve as reservoirs for M. ulcerans, although transmission pathways remain unknown. Systematic studies of the distribution of M. ulcerans in the environment using standard ecological methods have not been reported. Here we present results from the first study based on random sampling of endemic and non-endemic sites. In this study PCR-based methods, along with biofilm collections, have been used to map the presence of M. ulcerans within 26 aquatic sites in Ghana. Results suggest that M. ulcerans is present in both endemic and non-endemic sites and that variable number tandem repeat (VNTR) profiling can be used to follow chains of transmission from the environment to humans. Our results suggesting that the distribution of M. ulcerans is far broader than the distribution of human disease is characteristic of environmental pathogens. These findings imply that focal demography, along with patterns of human water contact, may play a major role in transmission of Buruli ulcer.