Bolstering native defences might be a better way to fight dental caries than relying on exogenous materials, such as sealants and fluoride treatment, said first author Erica Shapiro Frenkel, of Harvard University.
    
The bacteria Streptococcus mutans attaches to teeth using sticky polymers that it produces, eventually forming a bio-film, a protected surface-associated bacterial community that is encased in secreted materials, said Frenkel.
    
As S mutans grows in the biofilm, it produces organic acids as metabolic byproducts that dissolve tooth enamel, which is the direct cause of cavities.
    
"We focused on the effect of the salivary mucin, MUC5B on S mutans attachment and biofilm formation because these are two key steps necessary for cavities to form," said Frenkel.
    
"We found that salivary mucins don't alter S mutans' growth or lead to bacterial killing over 24 hours," said Frenkel.
    
"Instead, they limit biofilm formation by keeping S mutans suspended in the liquid medium. This is particularly significant for S mutans because it only causes cavities when it is attached, or in a biofilm on the tooth's surface," she said.
    
She adds that the oral microbiome is better preserved when naturally occurring species aren't killed. "The ideal situation is to simply attenuate bacterial virulence," she said.

"Defects in mucin production have been linked to common diseases such as asthma, cystic fibrosis, and ulcerative colitis," said Frenkel.
    
"There is increasing evidence that mucins aren't just part of the mucus for structure or physical protection, but that they play an active role in protecting the host from pathogens and maintaining a healthy microbial environment," Frenkel added.
    
The research was published in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology.

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