According to new research published in the journal Science that was conducted by scientists at Northwestern University, beavers may reveal how to detect and prevent tooth decay in humans. The researchers noted that while these animals don't brush their teeth or have other means of oral health care as humans do, beavers have iron built into the chemical structure of their teeth, which is why they believe the animal has such strong chompers. The team found that the pigmented enamel of beaver teeth is more resistant to acid erosion than human teeth, likely due to iron and magnesium found in the enamel itself.
The Northwestern team studied images of the enamel at the nanoscale and noticed "nanowires" at the core structure. These nanowires were surrounded by small amounts of rich minerals, specifically iron and magnesium. To do this, researchers exposed beaver teeth to acid erosion, taking before and after pictures to monitor the enamel's decay. According to a press release from the university, the Northwestern team is the first to show the exact composition and structure of enamel. Understanding these structures and how to strengthen them could potentially lead to major advancements in oral health care.
Lead author of the study Dr. Derk Joester explained, "A beaver's teeth are chemically different from our teeth, not structurally different. Biology has shown us a way to improve our enamel. The strategy of what we call 'grain boundary engineering' - focusing on the area surrounding the nanowires - lights the way in which we could improve our current treatment with fluoride."
The scientists noted that the high levels of iron caused the beaver teeth to develop a reddish-brown color.
Tooth decay is a major oral health issue both in the U.S. and around the world. Not only have the majority of American children experienced cavities, but caries have become nearly ubiquitous in adults. According to the American Dental Association, more than $110 billion is spent each year on dental services in the U.S., and much of these costs stem from procedures related to tooth decay and cavities.