Before the science of tooth decay was well understood, there were all kinds of theories about things that harm the teeth. For instance, some people believed that decay was a result of worms found in fruits that bored holes in the teeth. Today, the dental profession maintains one theory: that tooth decay is caused by acid-producing bacteria that attack tooth enamel.
Narrowing Down the Cause of Cavities
Decades of research across the globe have linked as many as two to three hundred different species of bacteria to the production of plaque – the cavity causing biofilm. However, only within the last couple of decades have scientists managed to completely link one specific bacterium: Streptococcus mutans, to the pathogen-caused caries. Specific studies on this bacterium have revealed that the key bi-product of its anaerobic fermentation is lactic acid – which is extremely harmful to tooth enamel.
More about Mutans Streptococci
Mutans Streptococci, or Strep Mutans in short, is a gram positive, anaerobic bacterium. The fact that it is anaerobic means that the bacteria don’t need air to survive, and can comfortably live between adjacent teeth or in deep crevices on the biting surface (occlusal) of teeth.
Although research has revealed that there are many bacteria and microorganisms found in the mouth, the entire genome of S. mutans – comprising over two million base pairs – has been fully identified and sequenced as the main halitosis (bad breath) and cavity causing bacteria. This discovery has been quite instrumental, as Dr. Jeffrey Hillman of the University of Florida managed to engineer the genome of S. mutans so that after it completes fermentation, it does not release lactic acid as a bi-product.
Scientists around the world largely agree that this species of bacteria has lived with humans in harmony for thousands of years, but the implication of more refined sugar into the human diet led to the evolution or “mutation” of this species to digest this sugar, producing the harmful acids. The lactic acid breaks down the mineral content on tooth enamel, creates holes on the outer surface, and then progresses into the inner section of the tooth (dentin). Penetration of the dentine marks the beginning of all kinds of dental problems.
Keep Your Teeth Clean
Scientists also agree that every single person has this bacteria species in their mouth (except newborns until it is transferred to them), which means that preventive measures provide the only means to reduce the impact of the lactic acid.
There are a number of ways to accomplish this, including proper brushing and flossing, reducing the intake of processed and refined sugars (found in colas, sweets, and processed sweeteners), maintaining a diet rich in calcium, proteins, and phosphorus to aid in enamel re-mineralization, and using mouth rinse, among others.