Dense living communities of hundreds of bacterial species form biofilms on our teeth. Without careful brushing and flossing of this dental plaque, minerals seep in, hardening it into tartar. When proteins in saliva adhere tartar to tooth surfaces, a trip to the dentist is required to hack the stuff off.
Over time, the mineralized microbes of tooth tartar come to comprise a mouthful of tiny fossils, including snippets of degraded bacterial DNA. Because many antibiotic drugs come from or are based on modern bacteria, tooth tartar – aka dental calculus – from ancient people may hold genetic recipes for novel antibiotics from the past.
A team of researchers from the Leibniz Institute for Natural Product Research and Infection Biology, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, and Harvard University has reconstructed "paleogenomes" of previously unknown bacteria from the dental tartar of ancient and modern people. The work appears in Science.
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