Scientists have revealed how bacteria manages to fight our use of fluoride and soon we will be able to use this information to enhance fluoride’s effect on tooth decay.

For over half a century the U.S. has been adding fluoride to toothpastes, some mouthwashes, and to water because of the fact that it is believed to help fight tooth decay. We all have bacteria in our mouths that live there naturally and feed on the residue of the food that we eat. As we all know it is this bacterial activity that causes enamel erosion and eventually tooth decay. Unfortunately however these bacteria have learned how to circumvent our use of fluoride and have managed to attack teeth anyway. With this new discovery scientists hope to change this circumvention and enhance fluoride’s usefulness.

The information was recently published in the journal Science Express, where Yale researchers reported that certain sections of our RNA can detect larger quantities of fluoride than normal and will then activate bacterial defenses. The problem with this is that many of those bacterial defenses also cause enamel erosion and tooth decay. The sections of RNA are called riboswitches, and they are used to control how genes are expressed.

“These riboswitches are detectors made specifically to see fluoride,” said Ronald Breaker, the Henry Ford II Professor and chair of the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology and senior author of the study.

Since fluoride was made available to the American public in the 1950s we have seen a widespread reduction in the number of dental cavities every year. Logically this reduction is credited to the introduction of fluoride into household oral health products. Enamel works by protecting our teeth from the acids produced by the bacteria in the mouth, but when that bacteria gets to be too much it will erode through the enamel anyway. It is believed that fluoride bonds to the enamel of teeth and acts as a secondary enamel system, hardening on the teeth and continuing the protection of the teeth from bacterial acids. High concentrations of fluoride not only keep bacterial acid off of teeth, but are also toxic to the bacteria as well.

The researchers at Yale found in their study that the riboswitches in our RNA will try to change how fluoride interacts with the bacteria. “If fluoride builds up to toxic levels in the cell, a fluoride riboswitch grabs the fluoride and then turns on genes that can overcome its effects,” said Breaker.

“We were stunned when we uncovered fluoride-sensing riboswitches” he said. “Scientists would argue that RNA is the worst molecule to use as a sensor for fluoride, and yet we have found more than 2000 of these strange RNAs in many organisms.”

The researchers noted in their studies that there is evidence to suggest this riboswitch reaction has developed over long periods of time in many species. This means that the species studied will have had to surpass toxic levels of fluoride throughout their history.

Luckily for us we can now use this information to our advantage. Breaker and his team believe that we can use the knowledge learned from this study to manipulate the way the riboswitches work to increase fluoride’s devastating effects on bacteria rather than diminishing them.

These finding do of course have their limitations as research often does. There is still some question as to how humans interact with fluoride at high toxicity levels. In the past researchers have suggested that high doses of fluoride can have negative effects on human health. At this time though fluoride has not given any indication that it is unsafe at the dosage that we currently ingest on a regular basis.

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