Walking On The Moon Is Nothing: Bacteria Can Walk Across Our Teeth
Walking On The Moon Is Nothing: Bacteria Can Walk Across Our Teeth
To be fair, walking on the moon will never be ‘nothing.’
It was a giant moment on the beanstalk of our history. Where good versus evil, opportunity knocks and stuff gets nicked. For those lucky enough to have experienced Neil Armstrong’s footprint in powdered moon dust, it was thanks to the wonder of television: its black-and-white snowiness dissuaded by a couple of thumps on the side and a rattling of rabbit ears.
On 20th July 1969 landed the ‘60s wide-eyed, Scotch-rocks future. If you were there it’s hard to forget. If you were really there it’s hard to remember. You just know you were there.
Like when the Beatles were there in ‘66 being more popular than Jesus.
Certainly they had to have been, if the blame for the US race riots and global anti-war protests rested squarely on the shoulders of the son of the father and a ghostly holy ghost. It was considered ungodly by many at the time that the Soviet Union had beaten America in touching the moon with a man-made object.
1966 made mad men object during a time when the Miranda Rights weren’t quite right, and while the US and Europe were nuclear testing above and under ground, Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘Sounds of Silence’ was #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
That same year in South Wales, Great Britain, was the Aberfan disaster: the destruction of twenty houses, a farm, and a primary school by the slip of a slag heap that wiped out a hundred and forty-four lives.
Of those, 116 were children aged seven to ten and a winner in the devastation stakes.
While the Vietnam War was escalating, the Arno River in Italy flooded the city of Florence. Considered the worst since 1557, a hundred and one people died.
It was a tragedy furthered by an irretrievably and massive cultural one: the state archives were decimated. Almost half its records were lost. Throughout thirty churches, museums, and libraries, the destruction and damage to over 14,000 housed artworks and more than three million books is forever deeply mourned.
How Jesus or the Beatles felt about a large wooden crucifix being the Arno’s most famous art casualty is anyone’s guess. Monty Python would certainly have had a lot to say, were it not three years before its timely time.
‘Crucifix by Cimabue at Santa Croce’ (c. 1265) was indeed by the 13th century master painter and mosaicist who apprenticed the then future Renaissance Master, Giotto. The masterpiece was rescued after more than twelve hours submerged in mud, water and sewerage.
That the painting was left almost without the face and body of Christ had one historian declare it “fatally wounded” as most certainly was the Beatles’ popularity after Lennon’s Jesus observation.
Although it too, resurrected and continues to live on.
So there’s that.
Perspective is everything.
That there are bacterium, single-celled organisms, designed to live under extreme conditions of pressure and temperature is one thing.
That there is such a thing as a predatory bacterium that shape-shifts to fit inside its prey is quite another. That we now know bacterium can walk – across our teeth, no less – constructs an indelible image of millipedey micromonsters with billions of filthy, filthy feet.
Or maybe just one foot each. Shrek-like. Trampling our pearly whites.
Bacteria coats our teeth. It eats the same sugars we do and in a way is more gross than picking food from someone else’s plate. It treats our mouth like the squalid halls of a late 18th century Palace of Versailles, dropping its britches and excreting acids that carve out the enamel of our teeth.
And none of it ever at all worthy of the art-eating Arno flood.
In a 2022 study published in the ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA’ are findings that fungi and bacteria work together in conglomerations to ‘walk’ and ‘leap’ across the surface of teeth, disseminating decay much faster than either organism could alone.
That’s an awful lot of foul fancy footwork spreading disease with the greatest of ease.
Like a bad prankster mashup of the original dynamite duo, Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire.
The conventional understanding always, was that bacteria accumulated in lucky-landing blobs and went about causing cavities.
This new study by the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine collected saliva samples from toddlers with severe tooth decay. (I know. Criminal.) The team found natural assemblages of Streptococcus mutans bacteria and Candida albicans fungi – neither of which was present in saliva from children with healthy teeth.
The real surprise was that they appeared to be capable of complex motion.
Thankfully the team didn’t see this activity as the explanation of tooth decay through interpretive dance, because it’s a scientific fact that nobody ever asks any questions after an experience like that.
Instead, these scientists let themselves be mesmerised by these multicellular, cross-kingdom assemblages – completely unrelated to each other before hooking up. It’s the stuff of trauma romance science fiction. This unholy microbial marriage of bacteria and fungi results in an incredible ‘superorganism’ – Hulk-like in strength in terms of riddance and resilience to antimicrobials which allows it to aggressively run around causing more extensive tooth decay than each as a single species could possibly achieve alone.
Even if they did it all together at exactly the same time.
How these gloopy groupings might behave once attached to the surface of a tooth prompted a series of experiments using real-time live microscopy.
What they observed is highly structured organisation at its teeny-tiny best.
Bacterial clusters attached in a complex network of fungal yeast and filament-like projections (hyphae) enmeshed in a glue-like, extracellular polymer biomaterial.
Once they had colonised the tooth surface, these unexpected behaviours and emergent properties became apparent.
While some bacteria can use appendages like flagella to propel themselves, both the microbial species of this study are non-motile.
And differently to any previously known microbial kinetics, these assemblages use the fungal hyphae to anchor to the surface and propel this superorganism forward: bacteria basically hitchhike with the fungi. (Insert fun guy joke here.)
These are superorganisms that not only move, they move fast and they move far.
Their pace is similar to the speed of fibroblasts – the cells involved in wound healing – with measured velocities of more than 40 microns per hour.
‘Leaps’ of further than 100 microns across the tooth-like surface were observed within the first few hours of gluey growth.
For perspective, a tree frog’s jump can be 50 times its own length; a grasshopper’s 20.
One hundred microns across is more than 200 times the body length of the krazy-glue-merged oral micromutilator.
That’s one small step for a micro-superorganism, one giant leap for a toothbrush.
Although the exact mechanisms are unknown, the synchronised ability for these assemblages to move as they grow has the singular advantage of rapid and migratory colonisation, causing destruction wherever it plants its ruinous, leap-walking feet.
Which seems impossibly Homo sapienesque.
And a little Poincaré recurrence theorem: where either the universe or at least some finite and immediate neighbourhood may infinitely return many times, arbitrarily close to its current circumstance. (Although not exactly).
Whether it holds true, depends on cosmology and the inherent academic suspicions that go with that. Quantum mechanics tangentially touches it with the flawed claw of Schrodinger’s cat.
Unlike classical mechanics, quantum mechanics states that any systems that are ‘close’ cannot be reliably distinguished from each other.
All in all, it’d be interesting to watch these dental supermicrobes for a few hundred thousand years. It might tinder with AI.
In the meantime it’s a good thing that at the moment it’s living in saliva, and not yet Salinas, California.
It means preventive strategies are afoot with it being found in saliva.
A possible therapeutic tactic is to target these assemblages early by blocking the binding, or disrupting the merge before it inhabits the surface of the tooth.
Beyond the applications for treating dental decay, these new findings are useful for microbiology and biotechnology in general.
Undoubtedly, there are aggregated organisms in other biological fluids or liquid ecosystems that similarly behave in the can-can of contamination that we now know goes on across the expanse of our teeth.
The excitement of observing two distinct organisms assemble as a new and ensemble entity, with additional benefits and functions also sheds light on evolution. Both mutualism, and multicellularity unite single-cell organisms by enhancing survival and proliferation rates through working as one unit in a given environment.
The difference in this walking-leaping-twirling biobundle is the larger, rod-shaped, external fungal cells that move like limbs and reach out to ‘handshake’ before co-mingling like it’s a crap dating app.
So brush up on how to stop this microbe walk of shame.
If there’s to be any walking make it a moonwalk. Doesn’t matter if it’s Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, the Police or Jackson style – what matters is that there is nothing that’s ‘nothing’ about walking on the moon.
Giant steps are what we took for that blurred, and indistinct ghost of a global world future that we saw.
And the marvel of the Blue Marble was still to come. Snapped from space by a human being with a calamity of critters dancing right across his teeth.
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