FEB 26, 2014 12:00 AM PST

Ancient Dental Plaque Provides a Wealth of Information

WRITTEN BY: Jen Ellis
2 28 1193
We ask a lot of our teeth, and they are incredibly durable. Not only are they durable during our lifetime, they outlast us for many years-just like the bone structure of our skeletons. Recently, researchers have been using this durability to their advantage.

By studying the teeth of ancient skeletons, scientists have discovered a well-preserved treasure trove of information that they have described as a "microbial Pompeii". A broad international research team, led by researchers at The University of York, University of Zurich and the University of Copenhagen, published their findings in a recent issue of Nature Genetics.

The "microbial Pompeii" the team refers to is the dental calculus (known to most of us as plaque) of skeletons that date back 1,000 years. While most of the molecular information in ancient bones is lost in the soil after burial through interaction with the burial environment, dental calculus is far more stable. This allows for analysis of the biomolecules that are held within the structure of the plaque, providing insights into the diet of our ancestors and some of the issues that they faced.

While the dental plaque provided a handy preservation mechanism, extracting and analyzing the information was a major challenge. It isn't that the DNA was difficult to remove, but it was difficult to filter out the relevant DNA from the "noise" of other sequences. Through shotgun DNA sequencing and a massive sorting and analysis effort, the team was able to ascertain the genome of a significant periodontal pathogen. They also believe they have acquired genetic evidence of biomolecules related to the diet of our ancestors-the first such information retrieved from dental plaque.

One of the more intriguing discoveries from the team is that, based on the variety and type of pathogens discovered in the plaque, the same bacteria caused periodontal disease in ancient times as it does today. In essence, dental plaque has not changed in 1,000 years, despite many changes in dental care, diet, and overall oral hygiene.

Another interesting discovery by the research team is that the microbiomes recovered from the ancient plaque included the fundamental genetic capability for antibiotic resistance-predating the modern use of therapeutic antibiotics by many centuries.

The incredibly well-preserved biological samples embedded in the structure of the ancient plaque are likely to allow further insights into our ancestors diets, habits, and lives-available to researchers with the abilities and patience to sort through the massive amount of information and correlate it to specific aspects.

For example, researchers may be able to further understand what makes periodontal disease so prevalent in humans and domestic pets compared to animals in the wild. Given the similarities in the plaque, by comparing the diet and habits of our ancestors to ourselves, can we deduce anything else about the origins of periodontal disease that may lead to better prevention? It seems likely that more insights will follow as researchers continue to tap this relatively new source of ancient biological information.
About the Author
You May Also Like
MAY 14, 2018
Microbiology
MAY 14, 2018
Understanding how the Microbiome is Built
Our body usually acts to kill invading microbes. So researchers wanted to know how the gut microbe gets around those defenses.
JUN 07, 2018
Microbiology
JUN 07, 2018
Assessing the Germs on Airplanes
The bacterial community on planes doesn't make for scary headlines.
JUN 14, 2018
Microbiology
JUN 14, 2018
The Rise of Carbapenem Resistance
European scientists are warning clinicians about a dangerous group of microbes that resist the effects of drugs used as a last resort.
JUN 21, 2018
Clinical & Molecular DX
JUN 21, 2018
Unique Gene Signature in the Blood Indicates TB Diagnosis
A unique series of genes could tell doctors that a person will develop a tuberculosis (TB) infection months before symptoms are visible. From The Francis C
JUL 04, 2018
Videos
JUL 04, 2018
How Did Viruses Originate?
There is still a debate about whether or not viruses are a form of life, and we really don't know where they came from.
JUL 21, 2018
Cell & Molecular Biology
JUL 21, 2018
Revving the Nanomotor
Many people have never heard of cilia, but these tiny appendages are an essential part of the cell.
Loading Comments...