To investigate the effectiveness of marine bacteria as a new marker of drowning in seawater, we determined the optimal conditions of media required to selectively detect marine bacteria and applied the technique to drowned cadavers. We incubated model blood samples (n = 20 per group) mixed with seawater, river, tap or muddy water on agar plates (Todd Hewitt, TH; Marine 2216, M2216) and determined the NaCl concentration required to selectively detect marine bacteria. We also used TCBS agar plates without manipulation to isolate Vibrio spp. Among the culture media, TH agar was superior. Bioluminescent colonies were detected only in blood mixed with seawater. Blue colonies stained using the cytochrome oxidase test (COT), were detected in blood mixed with both sea and river water. However when the NaCl concentration was above 4%, COT stained colonies were detectable only in blood mixed with seawater. We subsequently used 2, 3 and 4% NaCl in TH and TCBS agar to examine blood from victims who had drowned in seawater (n = 8) and in fresh water (n = 7), as well as from victims who died near aquatic environments (non drowned; dry-land control, n = 7). Bioluminescent colonies were detectable on 2-4% NaCl TH agar only from two victims that drowned in seawater. Bioluminescent colonies did not grow on TCBS agar. Blue colonies from all cadavers that had drowned in seawater (8/8) and in four of those that had drowned in fresh water (4/7) proliferated on TH agar containing 2% and/or 3% NaCl, but at 4% NaCl such colonies were detected only from cadavers that had drowned in seawater (8/8). Colonies from only one cadaver from seawater grew on TCBS agar. Furthermore, neither bioluminescent nor blue colonies were detected on TH agar containing 4% NaCl in samples from two cadavers found in an estuary (brackish water) who were thought to have been carried from areas of fresh water. Homologous analyses of the 16S rRNA gene revealed that the dominant colonies on TH agar containing 4% NaCl were marine bacteria (Photobacterium, Vibrio, Shewanella, Psychrobacter). Thus, proliferating bioluminescent and/or blue colonies detected in the blood of immersed cadavers using 4% NaCl TH agar, could help to establish drowning in seawater.
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