decay of organic matter or putrefaction, process whereby heterotrophic organisms, including some bacteria, fungi, saprophytic plants, and lower animals, utilize the remains of once-living tissue as a source of nutrition. The polysaccharides, lipids, nucleic acids, and proteins of dead tissue are broken down into smaller organic molecules, often by enzymes that are secreted into the external environment by the bacteria and fungi that are involved; the breakdown products are then readily absorbed by the heterotrophs and are used both as a source of building blocks for the synthesis of their own polysaccharides, lipids, nucleic acids, and proteins, and as a source of chemical energy, obtained either by fermentation (in an anaerobic environment) or respiration (in the presence of oxygen). Often during the process of putrefaction, trace elements and nitrogen are released into the environment in forms suitable for uptake by higher plants; this is the basis for the use of decayed organic matter as fertilizer. The disagreeable odor produced as putrefaction takes place is caused by the formation of certain gases, including ammonia and hydrogen sulfide, and certain volatile amines, including putrescine and cadaverine, two products of the breakdown of protein by microorganisms.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.