In The Field

ASM: Bacterial empires

The last weird bacterial factoids for today. David Relman of Stanford University has examined the bacteria lurking in twelve different spots of the same person’s mouth and used genetics to identify the types of bacteria living there.

Relman found that each spot in the mouth – and even four spots on the same tooth – host hundreds of bacterial species and a completely different collection of them. Our mouths, it seems, are not just one sea of saliva washing a few bacteria back and forth. It is more of a collection of rock-pools, each holding a different collection of bugs.


It’s pretty mind-boggling to think that different spots of the human body, only millimeters apart, attract these diverse groups of bacteria. Now I’m imagining a whole bacterial country mapped out on the body with cities home to different species.

So far, Relman has little idea why the mouth is so patchy. Is it something strange about enamel? Could the different inhabitants explain why gum disease crops up in certain places?

He is now exploring how these populations are established from the start, by studying the same spots in a sparkling clean mouth (after most of the bacteria were scraped with a dental cleaning) and then later as the bacteria build up.

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