Bacterium and fungus team may cause early childhood caries

The bacterium Streptococcus mutans and the fungus Candida albicans act together to cause mayhem in the mouth of children, in the form of cavities, according to new research.

University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine investigators identified the relationship between the bacterium and a fungus and reported their findings online Feb. 24 in the journal Infection and Immunity.

“Our data will certainly open the way to test agents to prevent this disease, and even more intriguing, the possibility of preventing children from acquiring this infection,” said Dr. Hyun Koo, lead investigator.

The bacterium S. mutans enables C. albicans to produce a glue-like polymer in the presence of sugar. The polymer allows the fungus to stick to teeth and to bind S. mutans. This relationship with S. mutans aids the fungus in contributing to the bulk of plaque, according to the researchers.

Plaque is a sticky film that contains bacteria and can contribute to tooth decay and gum disease. The bacteria, following a meal or snack containing sugar, can release acids that attack tooth enamel.

S. mutans previously was seen as the sole organism contributing to tooth decay, but the Penn researchers say that their study showed infection by the bacterium along with C. albicans doubled the number of cavities and increased the disease’s severity in rats. Dr. Koo and his collaborators—as well as other investigators—noticed that C. albicans is very often present in early childhood caries biofilm, or plaque.

“The combination of the two organisms led to a greatly enhanced production of the glue-like polymer, drastically boosting the ability of the bacterium and the fungus to colonize the teeth, increasing the bulk of the biofilms and the density of the infection,” said Dr. Koo, a dentist who holds a Ph.D. in oral biology.

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