London: Scientists have identified a network of genes that enables sharks to develop and regenerate teeth throughout their lifetime, a finding that may pave the way for new therapies to help humans with tooth loss.
The genes also allow sharks to replace rows of their teeth using a conveyer belt-like system. Scientists have known that some fish, such as sharks and
rays, develop rows of highly specialised teeth with the capacity for lifelong regeneration. However the genetic mechanisms which enable this to happen were poorly understood.
Now a research team, led by Dr Gareth Fraser from the University of Sheffield in UK has identified how a special set of epithelial cells form, called the dental lamina, which are responsible for the lifelong continuation of tooth development
and regeneration in sharks.
Humans also possess this set of cells, which facilitate the production of replacement teeth, but only two sets are formed - baby and adult teeth - before this set of specialised cells is lost. The team shows that these tooth-making genes found in sharks are conserved through 450 million years of evolution, and probably made the first vertebrate teeth.
These 'tooth' genes, therefore make all vertebrate teeth from sharks to mammals, however in mammals like humans, the tooth regeneration ability, that utilises these genes, has been highly reduced over time.
"We know that sharks are fearsome predators and one of the main reasons they are so successful at hunting prey is because of their rows of backward pointing, razor-sharp teeth that regenerate rapidly throughout their lifetime, and so are
replaced before decay," said Fraser.
"The Jaws films taught us that it is not always safe to go into the water, but this study shows that perhaps we need to in order to develop therapies that might help humans with tooth loss," Fraser said. Through analysing the teeth of catshark embryos, the researchers characterised the expression of genes during
stages of early shark tooth formation.
They found that these genes participate in the initial emergence of shark's teeth
and are re-deployed for further tooth regeneration. The study suggests that at the beginning of the sharks' evolutionary history, their teeth were most likely continuously regenerated and used a core set of genes from members of key developmental signalling pathways, which were instrumental in sharks evolving to maintain the ability to re-deploy the genes to replace teeth when needed.