Biologists want to manipulate your mouth to do something extraordinary: grow extra teeth. And they're getting their advice from fish.
In the developed world, we often take for granted just how important having healthy teeth is. But in cultures without widespread dental care and fluoridation, the situation can be dire. Worldwide, 30 percent of people will lose all of their teeth by the time they're 60. So while it might sound freaky to convince your jaw to make extra incisors, it could actually vastly improve many people's lives. And fish can already do it.
Much like stem cells in humans, certain fish have special cells in their mouth that are extremely flexible; they can form teeth or taste buds, depending on the animal's needs. As a result, cells that are laying dormant can be triggered and differentiated as soon as the fish loses a tooth. That's a lot more clever and adaptive of a system than what humans have: two sets of teeth and no wiggle room if you lose them.
"There appear to be developmental switches that will shift the fate of the common epithelial cells to either dental or sensory structures," said Todd Streelman, a professor in the Georgia Tech School of Biology, and coauthor of the study, in a press release. In other words, there appears to be an on/off switch inside every fish's mouth cells. Flip it, and the cell becomes a tooth, leave it, and it becomes a taste bud.
The Georgia Tech researchers, along with scientists from King's College London, are studying the embryos of fish called cichlids, who live in Lake Malawi, home to one of the most diverse fish populations in the world. There are over 1,000 cichlid species in the lake, alone. Because there are so many species of these fish in a relatively small area, they have varying adaptations that inform the development of their teeth. Some eat plankton, and only need a few teeth over their lifetimes. Others eat algae, which they have to scrape off of rocks like so much corn on the cob, ruining their teeth as they go. They have to develop new teeth all the time.
By comparing these species and checking out the differences in their DNA, the scientists were able to single out the mutations that make it possible to grow extra chompers. Now, the next step is to figure out how the same can be triggered in mammals. But they (probably) won't be actually engineering your grandkids to grow extra teeth.
"The more we understand the basic biology of natural processes, the more we can utilize this for developing the next generation of clinical therapeutics: in this case how to generate biological replacement teeth," explained Professor Paul Sharpe, a coauthor from King's College. That could come in the form of cell cultures, laboratory animals or, less likely, turning future generations into fishy freaks.
The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States.
Photo: Jesse S. | Flickr