News & AnalysisANCIENT DNA

Fossilized Teeth Offer Mouthful on Ancient Microbiome

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Science  13 Dec 2013:
Vol. 342, Issue 6164, pp. 1303
DOI: 10.1126/science.342.6164.1303

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In pretoothbrush populations, gumlines would often be marred by a thick, visible crust of calcium phosphate, food particles, and trapped microorganisms. Called dental calculus, or tartar, this hardened plaque still plagues many, and dentists attack it with metal picks and abrasives. But ancient dental calculus can be a treasure for researchers. At a recent meeting in London, several scientists noted that the microbial DNA preserved in ancient dental calculus—and in equally prosaic human coprolites (fossilized or preserved feces)—carries a record of the communities of bacteria that lived in and on people who died hundreds or thousands of years ago. They want to know how thousands of years of civilization have changed this invisible ecosystem, for good or for ill.