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Ancient Dental Plaque DNA Reveals Clues About Modern Health Problems
The tartar preserved on the teeth of ancient skeletons provides yet another reason to cut back on sugar-sweetened drinks and overall sugar.
In a study recently published in Nature, British and Australian researchers extracted DNA from dental plaque on 34 prehistoric northern European human skeletons to examine oral bacteria. Then they looked at oral bacteria in the last hunter-gatherers, the first farmers, people from the later Bronze Age, Medieval Times, the Industrial Age and today.
Genetic history encapsulated in the dental plaque reflects two major shifts in human diet – the adoption of a carbohydrate-rich Neolithic farming diet about 10,000 years ago and the uptake in industrially processed flour and sugar during the Industrial Revolution about 150 years ago.
As processed sugar and flour increased in the diet, diversity of oral bacteria plunged, letting caries-causing bacteria dominate. The dietary change spurred tooth decay, diabetes and heart disease—health problems we continue to grapple with today.
"The modern mouth basically exists in a permanently diseased state. Ironically, the introduction of sugar and carbohydrates contributed to the increase in dental plaque that now holds the vital information scientists are studying," one researcher noted in University World News.
"Until now, scientists have had to rely mainly on indirect evidence or historical documents to tell what people ate and what kind of illnesses they suffered from in the past. But now they can directly extract genetic information on diet and health from the tartar on teeth – which is very abundant and well preserved in the archaeological record – giving them a totally new source of unique information stretching back thousands of years."
Interested in genetics? Visit The Studio in Professor Wellbody's Academy of Health and Wellness to build DNA patterns, learn about cutting-edge genetic research in the Northwest and hear local scientists talk about their favorite genes. "Next Generation Genetics" will rotate out of The Studio at the end of May to make way for a new exhibit on neuroscience, so make sure to stop by before then.
And while you're here, check out the Odor Decoder in Wellbody Academy's Germnasium. Sniff different types of bad breath and try to trace the various causes!