What big plaque deposits you have!
A dentist will tell you to floss everyday, but an archeologist might, well, have different priorities. Turns out the nitrogen and carbon isotopes in dental plaque can give archeologists a look at 1,000-year-old diets.
The buildup of plaque on this set of teeth is, um, impressive. (Cut the skull some slack though, this was before we had dentists to chide us about daily flossing.) Without the benefit of modern dental hygiene, the plaque built up over a lifetime, layer upon layer like a stalagmite. In a paper recently published in the Journal of Archeological Science researchers exhumed 58 medieval Spanish skeletons and scraped off their dental plaque to test carbon and nitrogen isotopes. When they compared the isotope profiles of the Spaniards to that of plaque from an Alaskan Inuit, the scientists found the ratio of nitrogen-15 to be quite different. That makes sense, as the Intuit ate a predominantly marine diet, and there is more nitrogen-15 in the protein molecules of organisms living in sea than on land.
Cavities could one day become a thing of the past, as new research is decoding how our mouth bacteria are able to attach their dirty little mounds of plaque to our teeth, and is suggesting ways we might be able to outsmart them.
Cavities come from bacteria that live in our mouths and digest sugars in the food we eat, producing tooth-dissolving acids. The most annoying tooth-bug is Streptococcus mutans, which causes tooth decay. The bacteria use an enzyme called glucansucrase, which converts sugar into long sticky chains that allow the bacteria to glue themselves to the surface teeth. Once they’re in place, they can start in on the acid production.
Marc Abrahams enjoys writing operas, but until a few years ago had never even been to one. Abrahams is the editor and co-creator of the Annals of Improbable Research, the science humor magazine that gave birth to the Ig Nobel awards, a marvelous celebration of quirky but intelligent scientific breakthroughs. For the last 15 years Abrahams has been tasked with writing a scientific opera for the ceremony.
This year’s theme was bacteria, so naturally Abrahams wrote an opera about the bacteria living on a woman’s tooth, and their (eventually tragic) efforts to escape. The video of this year’s Ig Nobel ceremony is below (skip to the following times to view the four acts of the bacterial opera: Act I at 54:30, Act II at 1:07:20, Act III at 1:29:10, and Act IV at 1:52:00). Discoblog talked with Abrahams to get the scoop on the bacterial-opera-writing business.
Discoblog: This is the 15th Ig Nobel opera–why did you choose to do operas instead of a ballet, slam poetry session, haiku contest, or something else?
Marc Abrahams: In the Ig’s second year, we realized that we had this once in a lifetime grouping of people there, and we decided to take advantage of it. One of the things we try to stick in is a public event, done in a different way, that everybody has had to sit through too many times. We’ve had a ballet once or twice, we’ve had a fashion show, and I guess it was about the sixth year we got to an opera.
DB: So why does the opera work so well?
MA: Well, the brilliant words of course. (laughs)
Part of it is we take it very seriously. It’s done by very good performers and staged and put together really well, and people don’t expect that. An awful lot of people who come haven’t seen professional opera singers, and when you are in a room with one, it can be quite entrancing and astounding. At the end of the opera, most of the scientists come on and are having the time of their lives doing it.
DB: How do you go about writing an opera on a new topic every year?
MA: Bacteria was the theme we had chosen for the ceremony, and so I came up with the basic plot of the opera, and then since I don’t know a lot about bacteria myself I started reading a lot and calling up friends and scientists. Originally the bacteria were going to live on somebody’s eyelashes because that seemed a natural place, because they could see what the person would.
Then Harriet Provine [microbiologist at Harvard Medical School] almost instantly said, “Well, you know, if you are a bacterium that’s not the place you really want to be living. It’s not moist, there isn’t a lot to eat there.” We decided that the mouth would probably be the ideal place, and that quickly got localized to a front tooth, because then they would have access to the light–all the person has to do is have her mouth open.
Hit the jump for the video.
Seventy-five million years ago, mammals couldn’t compare to the big boy reptiles ruling the earth. Still, that didn’t stop one spunky, prehistoric squirrel-like creature. He wasn’t hungry for meat, but he needed his minerals. He eyed a dino bone, the equivalent of modern-day vitamin shop, and wrapped his teeth around it, his very own corn-on-the-cob-osaurus.
Yesterday, researchers published a paper in Palentology on these exploits. They claim to have found the oldest known mammal bite marks.
The researchers found the bones bites in two Canadian, Late Cretaceous-period dinosaur bone collections–and also on additional bones during fieldwork in Alberta. They suspect the marks were made by multituberculates, extinct rodent-like creatures, and they first found them on the femur bone of Champsosaurus, a swamp-dweller that looked a bit like an crocodile.
The researchers say that the form of the bite marks indicate that they were made by opposing pairs of teeth, a tell-tale sign of mammal chompers (think rats). And the fact that they came from paired upper and lower incisors points to multituberculates. Though these early mammals didn’t have the bite power that modern day rodents developed, their marks look similar.
Nicholas Longrich, lead author on the paper, says in a Yale press release:
“The marks stood out for me because I remember seeing the gnaw marks on the antlers of a deer my father brought home when I was young,” he said. “So when I saw it in the fossils, it was something I paid attention to.”
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80beats: New Analysis Reveals Color of Dinosaur Feathers for the First Time
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If you feel like Christmas keeps creeping earlier every year, consider the companies who are trying to get their products ready for the holiday season. Yesterday, May 19, many companies showed off their wares at the Holiday Gift Guide Show in Times Square.
There are plenty of new gizmos to buy when the calendar turn to December, don’t worry. But we wanted to bring you a few of the delightfully odd or unexpected entries now. Why wait? Some are old, some are new, some are resurrected, and one is, well, blue.
Thanks to the Forever White headset by Beaming White, my dream has finally come true: I can listen to the White Stripes while I whiten my teeth, all without whitening strips. Just put the hydrogen peroxide gel on your teeth, then strap on the headset and subject the gel to blue LED. All the while you can be pumping music through the headset.
This could mean an end to fear and loathing at the dentist’s office. A new (allegedly) painless blowtorch-like device is being developed that uses a thin beam of plasma could kill oral bacteria in cavities. A plasma is an ionized gas—one in which some of the electrons are stripped away from their atoms.
The plasma kept the dentin, the fibrous bonelike material that makes up most of a tooth under the outer enamel layer, intact, while reducing bacteria 10,000-fold. This means that plasma jets could be used to wipe out the tooth-decaying bacteria in cavities–a procedure that normally requires the use of a painful dental drill to grind away the infected portion of tooth.
The plasma being used is a “cool” plasma with a temperature of just 100 degrees Fahrenheit. When it fires, it charges the oxygen gas around it, which creates reactive molecules that break down and destroy the bacteria’s cell walls, killing them in the process.
But here’s the bad news: If you have a gnawing cavity right now, there’s no point putting off a visit to the dentist. Researchers say it will take three to five years for the new plasma drill to make it to the dentist’s office.
Discoblog: Bye Bye Dentures? Researchers Isolate “Tooth Growing” Gene
DISCOVER: Tooth DNA Dates Back To The First Americans
DISCOVER: Tooth IDs Famed Egyptian Queen
DISCOVER: A Pre-Columbian Cavity
80beats: Ancient Big Tooth Shark Had the Mightiest Bite in History
Image: Stefan Rupf
Many children are anxiously awaiting Halloween this weekend. But with all these sugary treats come a price: cavities. In fact, one out of every four children in the U.S. currently has at least one cavity in their baby teeth, a number that’s the highest it’s been in 40 years— and has been blamed on today’s sugary diet. Even worse, British researchers found that when kids consumed candy every day, they were more likely to be criminals when they grew up.
This Halloween, two Michigan dentists, Shawn Morris and Daniel Simmons, are encouraging kids to turn in their candy for cash. The mission is called Operation Gratitude—children will receive $1 per pound of sweets, so the dentists can collect a large candy stash. The candy, however, won’t go uneaten: The dentists will send it to U.S. troops stationed in Iraq so they can hand out the candy to local children.
So what is the incentive for candy-heavy children to turn in their loot? Hometownlife reports:
Youngsters who trade in their candy — a maximum of five pounds per child and total 1,000 pounds for the event — will receive a new Firefly glow-in-the-dark toothbrush and a goody bag of gifts. The youngsters will also be entered in a raffle to win one of three Nano iPods.
Along with reducing damage to young teeth, the candy collection also will benefit U.S. troops.
Good habits taught when you’re young could go a long way—especially considering that 80 percent of U.S. adults have some sort of gum disease. Plus, if cavities are left untreated, they can lead to permanent damage including loss of teeth and gum disease, which has been linked to stroke and heart disease. Seriously, more candy, more problems.
Image: flickr/ spundekas