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Long in the Teeth

Juvenile Lake Malawi cichlids

Juvenile Lake Malawi cichlids in the laboratory of Todd Streelman at Georgia Tech.
Photo: Rob Felt

When a Lake Malawi cichlid loses a tooth, a new one drops neatly into place as a replacement. Why can’t humans similarly regrow lost teeth?

Working with hundreds of these colorful fish, researchers are beginning to understand how the animals maintain their teeth throughout their adult lives. By studying how structures in embryonic fish differentiate into either teeth or taste buds, the researchers hope to one day be able to turn on the tooth regeneration mechanism in humans — who, like other mammals, get only two sets of teeth.

The work, which also involved a study of dental differentiation in mice, shows that the structures responsible for growing new teeth may remain active for longer than previously thought, suggesting that the process might one day be activated in human adults.

Photo of Research Technician Teresa Fowler examining jaw structures in the fish. Research Technician Teresa Fowler examining jaw structures in the fish.

“We have uncovered developmental plasticity between teeth and taste buds, and we are trying to understand the pathways that mediate the fate of cells toward either dental or sensory development,” said Todd Streelman, a professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Biology. “The potential applications to humans makes this interesting to everybody who has dealt with dental issues at one time or another in their lives.”

To understand more about the pathways that lead to the growth and development of teeth, Streelman and first author Ryan Bloomquist, a D.MD./Ph.D. student at Georgia Tech and Augusta University, studied how teeth and taste buds grow from the same epithelial tissues in embryonic fish.

The research, which also involved scientists from King’s College in London, was reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It was supported by the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research of the U.S. National Institutes of Health.​ 

— John Toon

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