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News / March 17, 2010

Researchers on cusp of tooth development breakthrough

by Guy Hiscott

A computer model prepared by researchers at the University of Helsinki shows that despite the complexity of tooth development, there might be a simple basis for dental variation.

The new findings may promote medical research, such as growing correctly shaped teeth and organs.
Jukka Jernvall, the academy professor in charge of the research, said: ‘The differences between teeth of individuals in the same population may originate from only one or two genes. It seems that gene networks have a core regulating the formation of teeth.’

Prof. Jernvall and his team have investigated the evolutionary development of mammal teeth for over 15 years and now have sufficient data so that the main aspects of a formula for making teeth is beginning to be clear.

According to the mathematical computer model, a rather simple formula seems to be behind the complex gene puzzle resulting in tooth formations; the jungle of gene networks has a ‘patterning kernel’ regulating the variation of teeth among individuals in the same population. In addition, the variation of human teeth, from the incisors to the molars, may result from a single factor regulating cell division.

The researchers tested their theoretical model by investigating the teeth of Ladoga ringed seals. The seal collection of the Finnish Museum of Natural History provided an optimal uniform population for the research. 

Prof. Jernvall explained: ‘Seal teeth were particularly suitable research material, since they vary significantly by individual.’

Prof. Jernvall is known as an international pioneer in cross-disciplinary evolutionary development biology. He conducted the research, published last month in Nature, in co-operation with Isaac Salazar-Ciudad, who currently works at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona in Spain.