Tooth enamel is incredibly hard and resilient, and scientists are just beginning to learn how the unique structure forms after some recent breakthroughs.
What is Tooth Enamel?
Enamel is the thin outer layer on a tooth. As the hardest tissue in the human body, it is responsible for protecting the teeth from damage caused by chewing and grinding as well as insulating against chemicals or extreme temperatures. Though a different part (the dentin) is responsible for initial tooth color, the enamel is what stains when you drink coffee, red wine, tea or other dark liquids. It can also erode when it comes in contact with acidic substances like soda. WebMD explains why enamel can’t heal like a bone:
Unlike a broken bone that can be repaired by the body, once a tooth chips or breaks, the damage is done forever. Because enamel has no living cells, the body cannot repair chipped or cracked enamel.
The structure of tooth enamel is unique, and scientists believe that knowing how it forms could be an important breakthrough.
Why This Research is Significant
An article in ScienceDaily quotes Elia Beniash, Ph.D., associate professor of oral biology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine, and explains how tooth enamel forms:
“Enamel starts out as an organic gel that has tiny mineral crystals suspended in it,” he said. “In our project, we recreated the early steps of enamel formation so that we could better understand the role of a key regulatory protein called amelogenin in this process.”
Dr. Beniash and his team found that amelogenin molecules self-assemble in stepwise fashion via small oligomeric building blocks into higher-order structures. Just like connecting a series of dots, amelogenin assemblies stabilize tiny particles of calcium phosphate, which is the main mineral phase in enamel and bone, and organize them into parallel arrays. Once arranged, the nanoparticles fuse and crystallize to build the highly mineralized enamel structure.
Learning how this complex material forms may help scientists improve restorative dentistry technology and perhaps even provide information for other technologies as well.