We know that your genes influence your risk of gum disease, but new research is suggesting it’s not only the actual code of your genes, but which genes are switched on and off in response to various stimuli that determine the health of your mouth. The study of this triggering effect of genes, called epigenetics, may help us to one day prevent serious gum disease that leads to tooth loss.

What Is Epigenetics?

Epigenetics literally means “above genetics,” it’s the study of other factors that contribute to our body’s complex response to its environment, including its ability to pass on some traits that aren’t found in the genetic code. Recently, we’ve discovered, for example, that some experiences our grandparents have in their lives are passed on by epigenetic means to influence children and grandchildren.

The epigenome is related to the physical structure of our DNA and it determines which parts of our genetic code can be accessed, and which parts of it cannot. By doing this, it helps to determine which genes turn on and off, and it changes in response to many factors in our environment, such as diet and even illness.

The Potential Role of Epigenetics in Dentistry

According to researchers at the University of Adelaide, epigenetics may hold the key to how our body responds to oral bacteria, changing our mouth from healthy to unhealthy states. In gum disease, it’s not just the amount of bacteria you have in your mouth, but how the body responds to the bacteria. In fact, inflammation and other immune responses to bacteria are partly to blame for the negative effects of gum disease, such as bone loss and tooth loss. If we can someday figure out how to control those responses, we may be able to prevent damage to bones and ligaments that support teeth.

Epigenetics may also help us further customize gum disease treatment. Not only will we be able to treat you based on the bacteria in your mouth and your genetic tendency toward gum disease, but also on the basis of which genes are currently turned on or off. Eventually, we may even be able to tell your body when to grow a new tooth to replace one you’ve lost, completely eliminating the need for dental implants.

Truly, an exciting time to be a dentist.