Teeth of 1,000-year-old skeletons reveal secrets

Academics at York University have found evidence of naturally occurring antibiotic resistance on the teeth of 1,000 year-old skeletons.

The research has revealed that dental plaque, unlike bones, does not rapidly lose much of its molecular information when buried and tests on the preserved teeth by an international team of scientists have provided a valuable insight into life around one thousand years ago.

Tests showed the plaque has preserved bacteria and microscopic particles of food on the surfaces of teeth and that gum disease is caused by the same bacteria today as in the past - despite major changes in human diet and hygiene.

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The team also found evidence of the basic genetic machinery for antibiotic resistance more than eight centuries before the invention of the first therapeutic antibiotics in the 1940s.

Led by the University of Zurich, the University of Copenhagen, and the University of York, the analysis involved the contributions of thirty two scientists.

Prof Matthew Collins, of the BioArCh research centre in the Department of Archaeology at York said the discoveries would help with the study of changes in diet, health and medicine and said over time he could imagine a future when most archaeologists regarded dental plaque as: “more interesting than the teeth themselves.”

Dr Christina Warinner, of the University of Zurich and the University of Oklahoma, who led the study, which is published in Nature Genetics, said: “Never before have we been able to retrieve so much information from one small sample.”

It is thought moderate to severe gum disease affects more than 10 per cent of the world’s population.