Regeneration is something that we see in other animals. Salamanders re-growing their tails after a run in with a predator; starfish doing the same with their multiple arms and legs. It’s an ability that we should be rightly envious of. There is hope, however, that we may one day attain the ability to regenerate.
Our teeth are essential to survival (unless you’re okay with intravenous fluid or smoothies for the rest of your life). And yet for how crucial they are, you only get two chances before you’re in a tight spot: baby teeth and adult teeth. Striking out a third time means getting some implants. Scientists are now attempting to address this, turning their attention, not to human mouths, but to the 80-teeth-filled mouth of the alligator. In their research, scientists observed the cellular and molecular mechanism responsible for teeth renewal in these animals.
Gators, despite being reptiles, have similar form and structure to a mammal’s teeth. By serving as a model for this remarkable biological process, we could then figure out how to stimulate tooth renewal in our own species.
There are three components to a gator’s tooth:
So an alligator’s tooth is really a three part component, almost like a magazine for a gun: once the functional tooth is expended, the replacement tooth slides smoothly into its place, while the dental lamina begins construction on the basic shape of the next tooth.
It’s an extraordinary process—one that can continue for up to 50 times per tooth. The hope here is to isolate the cells in the dental lamina and see if they can regenerate the teeth in a lab. Does this means alligators could put dentists out of business? Hardly, because even if scientists do figure out how to renew teeth in humans, that just means there are more teeth to get cavities, get pulled, and get fixed.
The story of teeth and stem cells, though, isn’t limited to this. A lot of press has been diverted to fetuses and stem cell research, their associated ethical questions, and such. Teeth, specifically the dental pulp comprised of living tissue, are a real source of stem cells.
Dental pulp gives rise to teeth in the first place—dentinogenesis. Stem cells in the pulp multiply and differentiate into the different cells that eventually make up teeth. What opens a lot of doors to opportunity is the fact that these stem cells can be found in millions of teeth—the millions of baby teeth and pre-molars that are extracted or fall out all have viable stem cells to be collected! We may one day have the ability to regrow teeth.