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Coloured scanning electron micrograph of Streptococcus mutans

The bacterium Streptococcus mutans (orange; artificially coloured) clings to teeth with the help of a film-forming molecule. Credit: Steve Gschmeissner/Science Photo Library


Microbes’ matchmaker helps bacteria to slime your teeth

A compound helps oral bacteria to hook up into sticky, decay-causing dental plaque.

A newfound molecule helps bacteria to spread across the teeth in a crowded, sticky film — a takeover that marks a step toward cavities and a blemished smile.

The dental gunk called plaque is actually a ‘biofilm’, a gathering of bacteria embedded in a goo of their own making. Bacteria sheltered in a biofilm can unleash large amounts of acid that attack tooth enamel.

Pei-Yuan Qian at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Wenjun Zhang at the University of California, Berkeley, and their colleagues studied biofilm formation by the bacterium Streptococcus mutans, one of the main causes of tooth decay. The team discovered that S. mutans has a genetic complex that promotes the formation of robust biofilms, and identified five molecules that this complex encodes.

One of these molecules latches onto both S. mutans cells and free-floating DNA, which can glue bacteria together into a biofilm. The molecule also lowers bacterial cells’ attraction to water molecules, promoting the cells’ ability to form clumps. If microbes that are unable to make this molecule are supplied with it, they become better biofilm-formers.

More Research Highlights...

Coloured transmission electron micrograph of two Streptococcus sanguinis bacteria

Genomic analysis identified starch-loving Streptococcus sanguinis bacteria (artificially coloured) in the mouths of modern humans and Neanderthals, but not in chimpanzees’ mouths. Credit: National Infection Service/Science Photo Library


Microbes in Neanderthals’ mouths reveal their carb-laden diet

Gunk on ancient teeth yields bacterial DNA, allowing scientists to trace the oral microbiome’s evolution.
Artist's concept of NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft entering interstellar space

Data collected by the Voyager 1 spacecraft, which launched in 1977, has helped scientists to calculate the density of the interstellar plasma. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Astronomy and astrophysics

Voyager 1 captures faint ripples in the stuff between the stars

The first spacecraft to visit interstellar space has now become the first to make continuous measurements of waves in that remote realm.
Light micrograph of a human egg cell during fertilisation

As a human egg cell is fertilized, two chromosome-containing cellular structures (dotted circles, centre) merge into one — a process that often goes wrong. Credit: Pascal Goetgheluck/Science Photo Library

Developmental biology

The error-prone step at the heart of making an embryo

High-resolution imaging shows why the union between two sets of chromosomes goes awry as least as often as not.
Satellite image of broken iceberg B-44.

Dark water borders chunks of iceberg broken off a West Antarctica glacier. The melting of the region’s ice sheet could allow the bedrock to rise, sloughing water into the ocean. Credit: NASA

Climate change

Antarctic rocks on the rebound could raise sea level much more than expected

When the ice covering the west of the continent disappears, the bedrock could rise up and shove extra water into the ocean.
Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve, Costa Rica

Mist wafts through the trees at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve in Costa Rica. Cloud forests around the world are threatened by development, wood collection and climate change. Credit: Stefano Paterna/Alamy

Conservation biology

Forests that float in the clouds are drifting away

Tropical cloud forests are safe havens for a vast range of creatures and plants, but they are under siege around the globe.
Illustration of a brown dwarf

A rapidly spinning brown dwarf (pictured, artist’s impression) tends to have narrow atmospheric bands; the faster the spin, the thinner the bands. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Astronomy and astrophysics

Dim stars that have failed at fusion are masters of spin

Three brown dwarfs whirl on their axes at a dizzying rate that might be close to the celestial speed limit for these bodies.
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