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Leave it to Beavers to Lead Enamel Research

Jun 03, 2015

By Dean George

Beavers have long been known as workaholics who excel in building dams, tree pruning and creating new wetland environments.

They are also renowned for their attitudes towards work (eager beavers) and woodworking skills, but leave it to the beavers to provide a new breakthrough: showing humans the way to improve tooth enamel.

A 2015 Northwestern University study has found that the mineral iron may work better than fluoride in protecting human tooth enamel; and the discovery was found in the most unlikely place: beaver teeth.

“Beavers don’t get caries (cavities). Chewing through wood is a very good way to clean your teeth,” said Derk Joester, lead author of the study. Tooth enamel, however, isn’t protected by simply gnawing wood, otherwise dentists might recommend we chew on tree bark and floss with toothpicks.

Joester’s team decided to map the nanostructure of teeth to study the exact composition and structure of tooth enamel. Scientists have known that the core of enamel are layers of hydroxylapatite “nanowires” (the part of calcium that creates bone density), but what Joester’s team learned was that it is a “glue” layer surrounding the nanowires that controls enamel’s acid resistance.

Using unprecedented imaging, Joester’s team discovered the shapeless layer between enamel’s nanowires is believed to be a key to fighting the acid erosion that causes cavities. This layer, rich in iron and magnesium, is where the fluoride included in some toothpaste and many public water supplies resides to help fight the acid attacks on teeth.

The team called their focus on the area surrounding the nanowires “grain boundary engineering.”

Since rodent enamel and human enamel is similar, the researchers were busy as beavers experimenting with rabbit, mouse, rat and beaver enamel. Carefully imaging the material surrounding the nanowires before and after acid exposure, they found the glue substance dissolved but not the enamel nanowires themselves.

Based on this research, they looked at the biominerals in the “glue” and studied how they aided both the acid resistance and hardness used to protect the tooth structure. Focusing specifically on the beaver’s incisors and its pigmented enamel, they found iron to be a key ingredient that protected the beaver’s teeth and determined it to be stronger than fluoride.

“A beaver’s teeth are chemically different from our teeth, not structurally different,” Joester said. “We found it is the minority ions – the ones that provide diversity – that really make the difference in protection. In regular enamel, it’s magnesium, and in the pigmented enamel of beaver and rodents, it’s iron.”

It is hoped that the study findings lead to improvements in fluoride treatments and reduce the billions of U.S. dollars spent annually on cavities and other tooth decay issues.

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Copyright 2015, Bloom Insurance Agency, LLC©

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