Bugs in Your Mouth: Yours Isn’t the Only DNA Floating Around in that Spit Sample


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Each of us is made up of about 50 trillion cells, which is pretty mind-blowing until you consider the number of microbial cells living on or in each of us.  It’s estimated that a healthy adult is lugging around 10 times more bugs, most of them bacteria, than human cells.

Just as the tiny differences we each harbor in our DNA can reveal information about our health and our ancestry, so too might the subtle differences in the types of bacteria we all carry.  The NIH has initiated a large project to explore the so-called “human microbiome” and its implications for our health.  Other projects are using bacteria to trace ancient migrations and human interactions.

Today scientists published the first in-depth study of global diversity in a specific human microbiome – the mouth. Surprisingly, although there is wide variety around the world in dietary and other cultural factors that could influence the types of bacteria found in a person’s mouth, the researchers discovered that the an individual’s “salivary microbiome” is likely to be just as different from a neighbor’s as it is from someone on the other side of the world.

“While there is significantly more diversity in bacterial genera [types of bacteria] compared from different individuals than from the same individual, the diversity among individuals from the same location is nearly the same as the diversity among individuals from different locations,” the authors write.  Their results appear online in Genome Research.

The researchers studied the oral bacteria of 120 people – 10 individuals from each of 12 worldwide locations: Oakland, CA; Baton Rouge, LA; La Paz, Bolivia; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Pointe Noire, Congo; Johannesburg, Sought Africa; Surigao, Philippines; Shanghai, China; Batumi, Georgia; Ankara, Turkey; Warsaw, Poland; and Dessau/Leipzig, Germany.

Overall, DNA analysis identified a total of 101 known types of bacteria, 39 of which had not previously been found in the human mouth.  The scientists also found evidence for another 64 unknown bacterial types lurking in people’s mouths.

According to the authors, their results lay the groundwork for future studies that will explore the influence of environmental, dietary and genetic factors on the types of bacteria found in a person’s saliva.  This, in turn, may lead to a better understanding of the role of saliva bacteria in mouth diseases or the interaction of the salivary microbiome with other microbial environments in the body, such as the intestines.

Their work could also help expand the use of bacteria in the study of human history. The stomach bacteria H. pylori has already been used in several studies to investigate human history. Just last month a study using this bacteria revealed new information about how Polynesia was colonized.  But while these H. pylori studies have been impressive, they do have a downside: a stomach biopsy is needed to get the samples.

“There would be obvious advantages if similarly-informative bacterial species could be identified in saliva,” the authors write, suggesting that their work might help identify just such a species.






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  • Hellman

    That’s amazing that scientists can do species discovery in a person’s mouth. All this time, I thought you had to go the Amazon or thermal vents to find new ones.

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