From an early age, parents and dentists alike will continually stress the importance of effective dental hygiene into the consciousness of a child but for me, the message didn't really hit home until I met Pogues front-man Shane MacGowan backstage at Leeds University in the mid-1980s. I've been a dedicated twice daily brusher ever since and have noted all manner of decay-fighting ingredients finding their way into my choice of toothpastes, including extracts from cocoa, the neem tree, aloe vera and eucalyptus. New research from the UK suggests using microbes to fight microbes, or more precisely an enzyme from bacteria found on the surface of seaweed. Lab tests have shown that the enzyme is effective in fighting plaque and the researchers believe that the discovery could lead to more effective oral hygiene products.

An enzyme isolated from Bacillus licheniformis was originally identified when a research group led by School of Marine Science and Technology's Professor Grant Burgess at Newcastle University was screening for compounds that could disperse microbes from the surfaces of ship hulls. Its plaque-fighting abilities were discovered while collaborating with a team from the University's School of Dental Sciences with Dr Nicholas Jakubovics at the helm.

A good example of strength in numbers, Jakubovics says that bacteria in dental plaque join forces to colonize areas to prevent potential competitors from gaining a foot-hold. Most of us will use a combination of toothpaste and vigorous brushing to counter this attack on our teeth, but even the most meticulous brusher might not catch all of these enamel-eroding enemies of healthy teeth and gums. A feeling of disappointment (and perhaps a touch of anguish) follows when an eagle-eyed dentist spots cavity work needing to be done.

When under threat, bacteria create a slimy protective biofilm barrier of extracellular DNA that joins them together while also sticking to a solid surface. This sticky matrix offers the microbes some protection from brushing, chemical washes or even antibiotics.

The researchers discovered that the enzyme could break down the external DNA, weakening and breaking up the biofilm layer so that the bacteria could no longer find a foot-hold and so get evicted. Initial experiments in the lab have shown promise in demonstrating that the enzyme has the ability to cut through plaque but more tests are scheduled to prove the discovery is both effective and safe.

The next step is to use the enzyme as an ingredient in a paste, mouthwash or denture cleaning product and the team is on the lookout for industry partners to help bring the enzyme to market, although it could be a few years before anything appears on the shelves of local pharmacies. The scientists say that the enzyme could also be useful for keeping certain medical implants clean.

The findings were presented at the Society for Applied Microbiology Summer conference at the beginning of July in Edinburgh.

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