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Study of Medieval dental plaque surprises researchers: What they found

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Periodontal disease bacteria same today as in Medieval times.

Scientists from the University of Oklahoma and an international research team are mystified by an unprecedented discovery about dental plaque. When the researchers looked at thousand year old dental plaque from preserved teeth they found the same type of bacteria responsible for periodontal disease in Medieval times still causes teeth and gum problems today.

The investigators were surprised because modern dental practices and hygiene should mean periodontal disease causing bacteria should be different today than it was a thousand years ago.

Thousand year old dental plaque raises questions

The researchers explain studying dental plaque that is known as calculus can reveal much about human health and history.

Christina Warinner, research associate in the Molecular Anthropologies Laboratories, OU College of Arts and Sciences said in a press release: "What makes dental calculus so unique is that it acts both as a long-term reservoir of the oral microbiome and as a trap for dietary and environmental debris. This allows us to investigate health and disease, as well as reconstruct aspects of an individual’s life history and activities. Never before have we been able to retrieve so much information from one small sample.”

The researchers say they discovered so much information they can envision a time when archaeologists will be more interested in studying dental plaque than they are in studying teeth.

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The study

The researchers discovered the 1000 year old bacteria by extracting DNA from a small sampling of dental calculus from the German Medieval population. They also analyzed the protein in the DNA samples.

Enrico Cappellini, a senior researcher from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark explained sequencing protein allows researchers to reconstruct infection and immune processes. He likens it to archaeological excavation performed on a molecular scale.

Does human behavior or something else cause periodontal disease?

Frank Rühli, director of the Centre for Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zürich says the finding is important because “It informs modern medicine.” By studying Medieval dental plaque the researchers can learn more about human health, inflammation and disease.

Now Warriner wants to know why 13 percent of people still get periodontal disease from the same bacteria found in the mouths of people living in Medieval times, why humans but not most animals even get gum disease and what causes it. Is it human behavior or something else altogether? There may be more to what causes periodontal and other modern diseases than scientists previously knew.

University of Oklahoma press release