Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Teeth Critters

Janis Ian, musician ("Seventeen") and SF fan, sent me a fascinating article on genetically engineered bacteria, a topic I write about a lot. The FDA has just approved a clinical trial for a genetically altered version of Streptococcus mutans, a bacteria which all of us harbor in our mouths and which causes tooth decay by secreting an acid that erodes tooth enamel. The GM version does three things: (1)elbows out the existing bacteria and take its place, (2)converts its acid wastes to a mild alcohol instead of acid, and (3)needs a twice-daily mouthwash containing a necessary amino acid or else it will die. This last is to make sure that people can get rid of the critters if the trial doesn't work out.

The alcohol-instead-of-acid production was brought about by replacing the acid-producing gene with one from another species of bacteria, Zymomonas mobilis, which is also used to make Mexican beer ("pulque"). However, this tiny still in your mouth will not produce enough alcohol to get anybody tipsy.

The FDA approval process took years. For a while, the entire project was classified in the same category as potential bioweapons ("Defeat the enemy! Spare them tooth decay!") And the week-long initial trial will isolate all its volunteer subjects in a biohazard ward.

There will be a lot more of this sort of thing in the future. As a proponent of the potential good genemods can do the human race, especially in parts of the world where disease and starvation are rampant, I'm all for this kind of progress. So -- would I volunteer to have experimental bacteria in my mouth?

Yes. I would. As the owner of pre-fluoride teeth that have financed college educations for the children of several dentists, I would be glad to take a chance on a better method to keep my teeth in my head. Especially if it were also a cheaper method.

Anybody else?


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none said...

This last is to make sure that people can get rid of the critters if the trial doesn't work out.

Or to generate a revenue stream. Potato, pot-ato.

Jamie Kress said...

Personally, given my severe allergic reaction to alcohol I really, really don't want this bacteria getting out there. There are probably a few recovering alcoholics that might consider it a slippery slope too.

I'm all for beneficial genetic modification, but I prefer it on an individual lever. Bacteria and viruses are hard to control once they're in the general population and in this case I could find myself losing mildly harmful bacteria to potentially fatal one regardless of what choice I may or may not have made.

Carmen Webster Buxton said...

Nancy-- I know just what you mean! We boomers were children after sugar got cheap and before they put fluoride in the water. My kids have each only had one tiny little cavity each, while I have more crowns than all of Europe. Not a whole lot to lose to experimental bacteria.