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The Goo That’s Good For Teeth

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We all try to do our best to take care of our oral hygiene. We brush and floss daily (okay, some of us), we visit our dentist twice a year and we undertake the pain that comes with that visit: all that tools that buzz I think only exist to torture us.

So, we’re sorry to inform you that your effort and diligence along with fluoride treatments and fillings may not be the best defense against cavities. The best medicine is moist, warm, and a little slimy. Dare to guess? Yes, you’re right – snot.

According to one study published in Applied and Environmental Microbiology journal, mucus, along with tears and skin, forms a defense barrier against germs. It turns out that mucus contains proteins called salivary mucins, which are essential for protecting our teeth from a type of bacteria called Streptococcus cavities, responsible for causing cavities.

Mucins prevent bacteria from sticking onto teeth and releasing acid that makes holes in tooth’s surface, unlike mouthwash and toothpaste that only kill bacteria. Researches who carried out the study, are working on synthetic mucus that could be added to toothpaste or a chewing gum. Is anyone up for a booger bubble gum?

However gross it may sound to you right now, this synthetic mucus will not only prevent bacteria, but it might also defend you against stomach ulcer, infections on the respiratory system, or even HIV.

They are definitely a better choice than antibiotics since mucins don’t kill bacteria – they only prevent bacteria for causing damage. Antibiotics, on the other hand, kill not only harmful bacteria, but also some helpful bacteria which could probably result in more dangerous viruses and infections taking place.

In other words, as Katharina Ribbeck, an assistant professor of biological engineering at MIT department, points out that this synthetic alternative is used “not necessarily to resolve infections but to stabilize or prevent infection.”

When bacteria S.mutans cling to our teeth, it forms a biofilm. Then it feeds on sugars we consume daily through food, thus producing acid that dissolves the tooth enamel.

This is how cavities are formed. Ribbeck’s group of research investigated the mucin known as MUC5B (the most common one) on a molecular level, in order to find out how it guards our teeth from cavities.

They first isolated MUC5B from the saliva they took from volunteers. Then on a different plate that was made from a plastic used often to resemble a tooth’s enamel, they grew S.mutans bacteria with sugar.

But, some of the plates contained MUC5B also. Finally, they discovered that there were more S.mutans bacteria floating around the plates that contained MUC5B than attached to them. This confirms our theory that mucin does prevent S.mutans bacteria, thus preventing cavities.

How can this happen? The researchers are not sure yet, but they think that it may be that MUC5B forms “a 3-D spider web” and catches S.mutans in it along with the secreted acid.

Moreover, it might be that MUC5B forms a coat that repels bacteria from the tooth thus preventing to form a biofilm. Ribbeck and Frenkel go deeper in the subject by saying that it is very possible that mucins not only keep S.mutans alive, but also neutralize the toxins that other bacteria produce.

Of course more research needs to be done since Ribbeck and Frenkel conducted their study in plastic wells – not on real teeth. Also, many other bacteria can cause cavities, not just S.mutans.

As William Bowen, a professor at the University of Rochester’s School of Medicine and Dentistry says that bacteria that cause cavities don’t stick directly to the tooth surface, but rather form a gluey film over the tooth that is known as plaque.

So, what can we conclude from all this? The fact is that the benefits of synthetic mucus are enormous since it can be used to prevent food spoilage or accumulation of bacteria on other surfaces as well. This process is called biofouling. “The applications are enormous”, Ribbeck adds.

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