It’s hard to appreciate that there is as much diversity in your mouth as there is among the species you might see in a forest. Hundreds of species of bacteria inhabit our mouths, which researchers know with the help of genetic sequencing that allows us to identify different species.

But what matters as much as what bacteria are in our mouths is where the bacteria are, and how they interact with each other, something that we are just beginning to unravel, thanks to new imaging techniques. And the result is beautiful.

Bacteries 3d render

Detailed Structures Revealed

Our new understanding of the distribution of bacteria comes from new techniques developed at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL). Researchers there developed what they described as “spectral imaging fluorescence in situ hybridization guided by metagenomic sequence analysis” to take pictures of common structures in dental plaque, and, by assigning them colors, made beautiful pictures of the diversity of the oral microbiome.

Researchers discovered that plaque often creates structures that they described as “hedgehogs,” in which a central base of bacteria anchors strands of long, slow-growing bacteria, then, around the edges of these “hairs,” new bacteria form spiky structures that are sometimes described as “corn cobs” because they consist of many spherical bacteria surrounding and clinging to the central thread. A total of nine different kinds of bacteria participate in these structures.

New Approaches to Gum Disease

Researchers have only just begun to illuminate these complex structures, but they hope that their insights will guide them to new approaches to battle plaque, perhaps by giving them strategies for attacking harmful bacteria in gum disease but leaving helpful bacteria (yeah, they exist–that’s an entirely different topic!) The structure relates to well-known interactions between bacteria. For example, bacteria that consume lactate, tend to live and work together, whereas anaerobic bacteria (those that don’t like oxygen) sheltered in the middle of the structures. These are the bacteria responsible for bad breath.

For the current study, the plaque was all taken from the outside of the gums, sampled from material growing on teeth, but in the future, looking at plaque from below the gums could show us that gum disease depends on crucial interactions between bacteria. For example, researchers at a different lab were independently working on a method for targeting the way that harmful bacteria take advantage of helpful bacteria to spread below the gumline.

We are excited about these new discoveries, and as these new, targeted treatments become available, we will make them available. If you’re looking for the latest treatments available in dentistry, please call (585) 244-3337 for an appointment with a Rochester, NY dentist at Contemporary Dentistry.