Oh, The Things Microbes Can Do
Posted on Friday, January 15th, 2010
Cavities happen when microbes in the mouth multiply, colonize and assemble as biofilm on the teeth – the scummy junk we commonly call “plaque.” The metabolic byproducts of these microbes – their waste – are highly acidic and eat into the enamel of the teeth, causing decay. Brushing and flossing break up the colonies, but only temporarily. For microbes remain in the mouth, and once things calm down, they’ll get right back to colonizing. So we brush and floss again, and the cycle continues.
For this reason, researchers have increasingly looked for ways of killing the specific “germs” most involved in tooth decay, or at least impairing their ability to communicate and colonize – research surveyed nicely in a recent Wall Street Journal article. Of course, one of the other things that must drive this research is the fact that many of us are less than diligent about oral hygiene, eat diets rich in sugars and fermentable carbohydrates and are often resistant – for whatever reasons – to change. So instead of encouraging people to do what’s long been proven to reduce the risk of tooth decay and gum disease, dentists could promote office treatments to undermine the power of the bugs in their mouths.
Of course, not all microbes are bad. In fact, a great many found in the average human body are actually beneficial to our health and wellbeing, and they live in a delicate balance we’re only beginning to understand. That we don’t yet understand the complex ecosystem of body flora can be seen through the disastrous results of antibiotic overuse: the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Certainly, there are benefits to antibiotics. They are absolutely life-saving at times – which is why their overuse is so bad: ultimately, they can become ineffective. As with any kind of medicine, there is usually some trade-off involved, and the implications are explored well in Scientific American‘s recent article “Bugs Inside: What Happens When the Microbes That Keep Us Healthy Disappear?”
But it can be hard to love bacteria. Commonly thought of only as germy invaders set on doing us harm, it’s hard to keep in mind the good done, for example, by the gut flora that helps us digest and metabolize our food most effectively. Besides, the microbes we’re most aware of are precisely the ones that make us feel bad…or that make us stink, thanks to their metabolic byproducts. This last is discussed in a fascinating, if kind of gross, article in New Scientist: “Pong-ology: Sniffing Out a Cure for Iffy Whiffs.” Yes, you can thank bacteria for stinky pits and feet, farts and breath – and thank intrepid researchers like Mel Rosenberg, featured in the article, for figuring out the process…and paving the way for inventors to seek, like dental researchers, new and better ways of fighting the bugs.