Whole genome sequencing can identify strains of caries-causing bacteria

Severe early childhood caries can destroy most of a child's teeth by age three, and disproportionately affects underserved populations, including American Indians and Alaskan natives. Although the link between Lactobacilli bacteria (Lb) and severe early childhood caries has been known for almost a century, progress in delineating which of 140 Lb species are responsible for the disease has remained elusive.

The recent development of whole genome sequencing has made it much easier to identify destructive bacteria. Now, an New York University dental research team has received a four-year, $2.2 million dollar grant from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), to use whole genome sequencing to identify those strains of Lb that contribute to the development of severe early childhood caries.

The study's principal investigators, Dr. Page W. Caufield, professor of cariology and comprehensive care, and Dr. Yihong Li, professor of basic science and craniofacial biology, will analyze several hundred bacteria samples from children with severe early childhood caries and their parents, and from caries-free children and their parents. Sampling and collection will take place at Bellevue Hospital Center in New York.

Sequencing will be conducted by co-investigators at University College in Ireland and at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in the United Kingdom. Drs. Caufield and Li will collaborate with experts on bacterial genome evolution at the American Museum of Natural History to identify sequences common to children with severe early childhood caries and to their parents.

Earlier research led by Drs. Caufield and Li identified virulent strains of Streptoccocus mutans, another group of bacteria commonly associated with severe early childhood caries. Dr. Caufield, a microbiologist and infectious disease specialist, and Dr. Li, a molecular epidemiologist, demonstrated that these bacteria are transmitted from mother to infant during intimate contact.

"The findings from our new study, as well as the earlier research on Streptoccocus mutans, will help propel the development of a diagnostic test that dentists can administer chairside to identify those at risk," said Dr. Caufield.

"Severe early childhood caries is one of the most prevalent chronic diseases in underprivileged populations," added Dr. Li. "Much still needs to be learned about how the disease develops, and how it can be prevented. Our study will help to fill those gaps."

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