A new and first of its type glimpse at the nanostructure of tooth enamel helps to explain why the hardest substance in the human body is so incredibly resilient.
Using new imaging technology, scientists have unlocked the secrets of enamel.


Tooth enamel is the hardest substance in the human body, but, until now, no one knew how it managed to last a lifetime. The authors of a recent study conclude that enamel's secret lies in the imperfect alignment of crystals.

Tooth enamel looks like bone, but it's not actually living tissue. The outer layer of the tooth which encases and protects other tissue inside the tooth forms when we are young. And once teeth are developed, it has no natural ability to self repair or regrows.

If we cut our skin or break a bone, these tissues will repair themselves; our bodies are excellent at recovering from injury. Tooth enamel, however, cannot regenerate, and the oral cavity is a hostile environment.

Every mealtime, enamel is put under incredible stress; it also weathers extreme changes in both pH and temperature. Despite this adversity, the tooth enamel that we develop as a child remains with us throughout our days.

Scientists have long been interested in how enamel manages to stay functional and intact for a lifetime. As one of the authors of the latest study, Prof. Pupa Gilbert from the University of Wisconsin Madison puts it, "How does it prevent catastrophic failure?"


Image: mapping of tooth enamel, with colours representing degrees of nanocrystal mis-orientation. (Pupa Gilbert)


Nanocrystals structure of tooth enamel

With the help of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge and the University Pittsburgh, PA,Prof. Gilbert took a detailed look at the structure of enamel. The team of scientists has now published the results of its study in the journal Nature Communications.

The tooth enamel is made up of so called enamel rods, which consist of hydroxyapatite crystals. These long, thin enamel rods are around 50 manometers wide and 10 micrometers long.

By using one of the modern imaging technologies such as cutting edge imaging technology, the researchers could visualize how individual crystals in tooth enamel are aligned. The technique, which Prof.Gilbert designed, is called polarization-dependent imaging contrast (PIC)mapping.

Before the advent of PIC mapping, it was impossible to study enamel with this level of detail. "You can measure and visualize, in color, the orientation of individual nanocrystals and see many millions of them at once," explains Prof. Gilbert.

"The architecture of complex bio-minerals, such as enamel, becomes immediately visible to the naked eye in a PIC map."

When they viewed the structure of enamel, the researchers uncovered patterns. "By and large, we saw that there was not a single orientation in each rod, but a gradual change in crystal orientations between adjacent nanocrystals," explains Gilbert. "And then the question was, 'Is this a useful observation?'"


Every mealtime, enamel is put under incredible stress; it also weathers extreme changes in both pH and temperature.


Importance of crystal orientation of tooth enamel

For the investigation whether the change in crystal alignment influences the way that enamel responds to stress, the team recruited help from Prof. Markus Buehler of MIT. Using a computer model, they simulated the forces that hydroxyapatite crystals would experience when a person chews.

So within the model, they placed two blocks of crystals next to each other so that the blocks touched along one edge. The crystals within each of the two blocks were aligned, but where they came in contact with the other block, the crystals met at an angle.

And throughout several trials, the scientists altered the angle at which the two blocks of crystals met. If the researchers perfectly aligned the two blocks at the interface where they met, a crack would appear when they applied pressure.

As the blocks met at 45 degrees, it was a similar story; a crack appeared at the interface. However, when the crystals were only slightly misaligned, the interface deflected the crack and prevented it from spreading.

The new finding spurred further investigation.Next, Prof. Gilbert wanted to identify the perfect angle of interface for maximum resilience. The team could not use computer models to investigate this question, so Prof. Gilbert put her trust in evolution. "If there is an ideal angle of misorientation, I bet it's the one in our mouths," she decided.

To investigate, co-author Cayla Stifler returned to the original PIC mapping information and measured the angles between adjacent crystals. After generating millions of data points, Stifler found that1 degree was the most common size of misorientation, and the maximum was 30degrees.

This observation agreed with the simulation smaller angles seem better able to deflect cracks.

"Now we know that cracks are deflected at the nanoscale and, thus, can't propagate very far.That's the reason our teeth can last a lifetime without being replaced." Prof.Pupa Gilbert


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