May 13, 2013
Humans drew the short end of the toothbrush when it comes to our pearly whites’ longevity. Other animals such as reptiles and fish frequently lose and replace their teeth by growing new ones, but people are stuck with the same set of mature adult teeth their entire lives. If they lose a tooth–or all 32–dentures are usually the only option.
Oddly enough, alligators’ deadly chomps may hold a clue for how scientists could coax humans into regrowing teeth. These reptiles belong to the order Crocodilia, who, with their famous cheerful grins, caused songwriters to warn that you should never smile at a crocodile. To the bane of Captain Hook and other victims of gator and croc attacks, the large reptiles often regrow their razor teeth multiple times. Researchers think that, given time, technology may advance so that we can borrow these reptilian smiles. But first, scientists need to understand just how these animals keep their smiles toothy.
In a paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, an international team of researchers attempted to get at the mechanisms behind the superior tooth regenerating abilities of one species of Crocodilia–the American alligator–in the hopes of applying the results to humans.
In humans, organs such as hair, scales, nails and teeth “are at the interface between an organism and its external environment and therefore, face constant wear and tear,” the researchers write. But alligators have evolved ways to deal with these challenges. The carnivores can replace any of their 80 teeth up to 50 times throughout their 35 to 75-year lives. Small replacement teeth grow under each mature alligator tooth, ready to spring into action the moment a gator loses a tooth.
To figure out the molecules and cells responsible for replacement, the researchers used X-rays and small tissue samples from alligator embryos, hatchlings and 3-year old juveniles’ developing teeth. They also grew tooth cells in the laboratory and created computer models of the process. Alligator teeth appear to cycle continuously, they write, but in fact the animals’ teeth seem to go through three distinct phases: pre-initiation, initiation and growth.
Once an alligator loses a tooth, these three phases kick off. The dental lamina, or a band of tissue associated with the initial stages of tooth formation in many animals, begins to bulge. This triggers stem cells and an array of signaling molecules that direct the process of forming a new tooth.
These results may be applicable to humans’ pearly whites. Alligators’ flesh-chomping incisors are surprisingly similar to well-organized, complex vertebrate teeth such as ours. In humans, a remnant of the dental lamina–the structure crucial to tooth formation–still exists and sometimes wrongly activates and begins forming toothy tumors. If the researchers could better tease out the molecular signaling pathways behind alligator tooth replacement, they reason, they they may be able to induce those same chemical instructions in humans to coax the body into forming a new tooth after one gets kicked out in a soccer game or has to be removed after becoming infected.
Alternatively, doctors may be able to shut off the molecules responsible for conditions that cause uncontrolled tooth formation. Individuals suffering from cleidocranial dysplasia syndrome grow many unusually shaped, peg-like teeth, for example, and people with Gardner syndrome also grow supernumerary, or extra, teeth.
While the researchers still need to clarify more molecular details behind alligator tooth growth, this initial study does hint that doctors and dentists may someday be able to selectively bestow patients with the reptiles’ tooth-regenerating abilities.
“Based on our study, it may be possible to identify the regulatory network for tooth cycling,” the researchers conclude. “This knowledge will enable us to either arouse latent stem cells in the human dental lamina remnant to restart a normal renewal process in adults who have lost teeth or stop uncontrolled tooth generation in patients with supernumerary teeth.”
Either way, they note that “Nature is a rich resource from which to learn how to engineer stem cells for application to regenerative medicine.”
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.