Gator-aid: Alligators Gnawing on the Mystery of Tooth Regeneration

In Brief:

  • Unlike humans, alligators can regenerate lost teeth as often as fifty times a day, thanks to stem cells found in their gums.
  • Alligators essentially have three sets of teeth, the last of which is the key to tooth regeneration.
  • Researchers hope to isolate the stem cells responsible for regenerating teeth in alligators and use them to produce teeth in the lab.
Graphic by Staff Illustrator

Graphic by Staff Illustrator

As Graham listened to the National Anthem echo off the walls of the Tampa Bay hockey rink, he saw a glint of light coming from the box where the Gators, the opposing team, stood. Soon he was focusing all his attention on the puck and by the third period had saved some fourteen-odd shots. His team was up 1-0 when he took off his helmet for just a few seconds to rehydrate from the water bottle nesting on top of the goal. With the speed of light, the puck came flying at his face and before he knew it, Graham was on the ground, disoriented and sputtering up a profuse amount of blood from his mouth…and a tooth. A player from the opposing team put a sympathetic hand on his shoulder. “I know how it feels man,” the Gator said, and he gave Graham a sad smile that showed off a gold tooth, the source of the glinting light.

Photo: "Open Wide" by Michael Bentley (Unedited). License: CC BY 2.0

Photo: “Open Wide” by Michael Bentley (Unedited). License: CC BY 2.0

Scientists are currently exploring tooth regeneration as a solution to the aesthetic, and at times, functional problem of losing teeth. If you live in Florida like Graham, the answer could be lurking in a nearby swamp. Researchers at the Keck School of Medicine of USC are studying the alligator for clues how to regenerate teeth in humans. Dr. Cheng-Ming Chuong says that his team’s goal is to find a way to spur tooth growth in humans using stem cells (Koebler, 2013). The tooth structure of alligators is surprisingly similar to that of humans, except that an alligator has eighty teeth, each of which can be regenerated up to fifty times in a single day. The frequency at which American alligators can regenerate teeth is due to the activation of dormant stem cells which trigger the growth of a new tooth when the alligator loses one (Cooper, 2013).

According to Chuong’s team, the alligator has three sets of teeth (Trinidad, 2013). At any given time, an alligator will have one adult tooth, a replacement tooth, and dental lamina, gum tissue that contains stem cells (Wu, 2013).

The team at Keck hopes to be able to isolate these slow-growing stem cells from the dental lamina so that they can grow and reproduce teeth in the lab. Chuong states that once his team is able to control the chemical and molecular pathways of the stem cells in a lab setting, they will be very close to unlocking the secrets behind tooth regeneration (Trinidad, 2013). At that point, everyone who has lost a tooth will really have a reason to smile.




Works Cited

This article was written by cYw35. As always, before leaving a response to this article please view our Rules of Conduct. Thanks! -cYw Editorial Staff


Author: cYw35

Hello everyone! This has been my first year writing for cYw and I'm excited to have this article published! I thoroughly enjoyed researching and writing about alligators and tooth regeneration. I hope everyone who reads my article will take something away from it. Stem cell research is relatively new compared to many other fields and tooth regeneration specifically is in its infancy. Besides the work I've done for cYw, I play club rugby, I'm the captain of the Robotics team at my school, and I also just try to be a good, peaceful person everyday. Thanks for visiting the site!

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    Hello, cYw35:

    Thank you for this article. It was very comprehensible and highlighted some really interesting research. I have two questions and I’m wondering if the answers came up as you were doing your research; namely, (a) do crocodiles have the same capability; as alligators with regard to tooth regrowth; and (b) are the alligator’s teeth more loosely embedded in its jaw than our teeth are? (That is, Is there some reason why having “breakaway” teeth could be useful to the alligator?)

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      Hello Alan – yes, all of the 23 + species of crocodilians shed their teeth on a regular basis. No, they are not loosely rooted in the gums but are very firmly set in sockets in the jaws in crocodiles and in a bony channel in alligatorid’s. The teeth are like cones, starting within the jaws and with the pointed end of successive teeth within the cone of the tooth above it. You can liken it to our own baby teeth that we lose and are replaced. Difference is we do it once and crocs do it throughout their lives. Why? Crocodylians have the greatest jaw crushing power of virtually all animals. Teeth sometimes break off under the great pressure. However, the teeth must remain sharp and string to catch and crush prey. Crocodylians do not chew their food but crush it and bones into a relatively soft mass and then swallow the prey whole, or simply tear it into manageable chucks to swallow. Continually replacing teeth insures that they are always sharp and ready. No they don’t replace their teeth up to 50 times a day. The teeth are replaced individually one by one as they develop and push the outer tooth out, over a period of time. Not all at once, as there is no time when a croc is toothless unless it has some tooth/gum/dietary disease.

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    First, I’d like to say excellent job to the young writer who wrote this! Although this was an informational piece, your writing skill was apparent, and you managed to combine creativity and science really well, so kudos to you! On the writing: I loved how you incorporated the hockey story in the beginning, and used a full-circle ending involving the “glint of light” from the tooth. That was very clever, and well done. I also appreciated your witty ending- nice touch. Second, I think you did a great job organizing your information with the pictures and the outline in the beginning; it was very aesthetically pleasing to the eyes. On the content: Not only did I not know that alligators regenerate their teeth, I also did not know that their teeth can furthermore be regenerated fifty times a day! That’s fascinating! This is a true example of not only how scientists are looking in nature for solutions, but also how animals are helping humans find new treatments. I can’t wait to read up on the ex vivo experiments you mentioned. Thank you for writing this article, and great job once again!

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    This was a very interesting article to read. You used much evidence and information to support your thesis. However, do you have any insight as to any side effects if we were to implement these stem cells in human mouths?

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    Gators seem like rather unconventional candidates for stem cell research, but it’s interesting to see that something as simple as the way they grow their teeth can be implemented in future medical procedures. Great article!

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    I really enjoyed the story in the beginning. It was a nice lead in and transition for the new research. In addition, I wasn’t aware of the alligator’s ability of tooth regeneration before. It is definitely an interesting topic and have many implications for human technology. It can be useful for solving other dental problems which complicate the lives of many.

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