A Northwestern University research team has been searching for a way to prevent dental caries, or tooth decay, and they may have found an answer in an unexpected place. Researchers who analyzed the teeth of beavers found a significant difference in their enamel, when compared to that of human teeth, and believe it is the key to the beavers’ general resistance to tooth decay.
While the structure of beaver teeth is almost identical to human teeth, the chemical makeup differs greatly. Tooth enamel is a complex system, and researchers found that unstructured materials play the biggest role in tooth decay, in spite of making up a small percentage of the enamel. In humans, the main component of unstructured materials is magnesium. In beavers and other rodents, it is iron, which often gives teeth a red hue.
When researchers exposed the types of teeth to acid similar to those produced by plaque on the teeth. Over time, the iron-rich enamel dissolved, but at a much slower rate than the magnesium-rich enamel. The difference in speed was even more pronounced when iron enamel dissolving rates were compared to that of fluoride-treated enamel.
The unstructured material had yet to be mapped or its structure analyzed before the Northwestern study. Researchers hope to continue their work to understand how the structure of enamel changes over time, especially as it differs between healthy teeth and those with tooth decay. Once they have an understanding about the behavior of enamel, they hope to find ways to strengthen human enamel and new treatments for cavities and other decay.
The Northwestern study may contribute to changes in dentistry, as researchers discover more information about how teeth and enamel work. Eventually, fillings may become obsolete as new, less-invasive treatment technology takes their place.