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You've heard of royal families having "an heir and a spare" in waiting to become the next king. Well, the same is true of alligator teeth: Behind every tooth is a replacement tooth, just in case, as well as the material needed to keep more teeth coming - as many as 50 times throughout the scary reptile's life.
Why should we care, other than to know that if an alligator breaks his tooth while eating us, another will grow back?
Well, scientists writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States looked at the connection between stem cells and these alligator teeth-in-waiting, and they think they're on to something.
"Humans naturally only have two sets of teeth - baby teeth and adult teeth," says Cheng-Ming Chuong, a professor of pathology at the University of Southern California. "Ultimately, we want to identify stem cells that can be used as a resource to stimulate tooth renewal in adult humans who have lost teeth. But, to do that, we must first understand how they renew in other animals and why they stop in people."
The researchers studied both adult and embryonic gators, and if we're reading this right, yanked the teeth out of some of the grownups to study what happened next. (Now there's a job for some enterprising young dental student ...)
With an understanding of the mechanisms behind tooth renewal in alligators, the scientists - who are from universities in the United States, China and Taiwan - hope to learn enough to help people grow new teeth to replace diseased or damaged choppers.
Just don't tell the Tooth Fairy.
Image by Untitledprojects via Flickr
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