We Share the Genes That Help Sharks Regrow Teeth

Sharks are some of the most famous fish in the sea for a few reasons. One, they make excellent movie heavies. Two, they play a critical role in the ecosystem and desperately need to be protected. Three, teeth. As in sharks have a lot of them, they are very large and sharp, and no matter how many they lose, another one will grow in right back in its place.

Recently, the University of Sheffield’s Department of Animal and Plant Sciences released study findings indicating new knowledge about how that endless process of tooth regeneration works. It turns out the exact same genetic system that allows sharks to regrow teeth is present in humans, too. The scientists have found the key lies in a set of epithelial cells called the dental lamina. While in sharks they produce teeth throughout the shark's life, in humans, only two sets of teeth grow in, which are popularly called baby, and later, adult teeth. Though a distant ancestor we share with sharks likely had the same tooth regeneration capabilities, evolution has mostly phased out that ability in humans.

“These tooth-making genes found in sharks are conserved through 450 million years of evolution, and probably made the first vertebrate teeth,” a University of Sheffield press announcement of the findings notes. “These ‘tooth’ genes, therefore make all vertebrate teeth from sharks to mammals, however in mammals like humans, the tooth regeneration ability, that utilises these genes, has been highly reduced over time.”

Scientists think if they could figure out how to flip the switch on these genes—to turn them on again, so to speak—it could change dentistry forever.

"The good news for us as humans is the genes that make these teeth regrow are shared by all vertebrates, including humans....[B]ecause we have the same genes to make teeth, we also have a regenerative program,” study head Gareth Fraser told the Daily Mail. “We make two sets of teeth, but humans need more teeth, whether through loss or damage, so our second set are really quite valuable. Sharks never have tooth decay, if they lose teeth they regenerate them even more rapidly. The point is at some level it's not so far-fetched we can use and re-utilise what nature has provided.”

Though the prospect of having a built-in way to keep oral surgery to a minimum seems exciting, Fraser cautions that you'll probably have to keep seeing your dentist for quite a while. Zeroing in on precisely how to prompt the tooth gene system to act in the way a shark’s does will likely involve a lot more investigation and inquiry. But he ultimately expects a breakthrough. "Regenerating teeth will happen,” the scientist confidently told the Daily Mail.

(h/t Daily Mail)

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