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Natural plant chemicals could help fight tooth decay

A naturally occurring chemical could help fight tooth decay, a new study has found. 

The natural product, which is found in plants, acts against harmful mouth bacteria and could improve oral health if included in products by helping prevent the build-up of plaque, according to the researchers.

Known as trans-chalcone, the product is closely related to the chemicals found in liquorice root, but the new study found it is able to block a key enzyme that allows the bacteria to thrive in oral cavities.

The study, led by scientists at the University of Edinburgh, is the first to show how trans-chalcone can stop bacteria forming biofilms.

The bacteria – Streptococcus mutans – metabolise sugars from food and drink, which then produce a mild acid and trigger plaque formation. Without regular brushing and dental visits, the combination of plaque and mouth acid can lead to tooth decay.

However, the team at the University of Edinburgh found that stopping the enzyme prevented the bacteria from forming its protective biological layer or biofilm around itself. Plaque can only be formed when bacteria attach themselves to teeth and construct biofilms. 

Stopping this assembly of protective layers would help stop bacteria forming plaque, the teams says. The researchers state that oral care products containing similar natural compounds could help people improve their dental hygiene.

Published in the journal Chemical Communications, the study looked at the 3D structure of the enzyme – called Sortase A – which allows the bacteria to make biofilms. 

The researchers were then able to identify how trans-chalcone prevents the enzyme from functioning.

Dr Dominic Campopiano, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Chemistry, who led the study, said: “We were delighted to observe that trans-chalcone inhibited Sortase A in a test tube and stopped Streptococcus mutans biofilm formation. We are expanding our study to include similar natural products and investigate if they can be incorporated into consumer products. This exciting discovery highlights the potential of this class of natural products in food and healthcare technologies.”

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