Making Mouths: assessing the incorporation and survival of biological signals in oral biofilms

Lead Institution: York: Camilla Spelle

Sheffield: Dr Maria E Romero-Gonzalez
Leeds: Prof. Deirdre Devine,

Our aim is to develop a novel, collaborative, interdisciplinary research network on ancient oral biofilms. ‘Making Mouths’ brings together researchers from archaeology, microbiology, and bioengineering to explore the persistence of biofilms in the archaeological record and ultimately the impact of these microbial consortia on human health through time.

Biofilms are a hot topic in environmental and infectious disease microbiology. Formed by highly complex and diverse microbial communities (microbiomes), biofilms are difficult to eradicate and are often a hotspot for the exchange of antibiotic resistance. Within the human body, dental plaque and its mineralized counterpart, dental calculus (tartar), are the most important microbial biofilms influencing oral and systemic health1,2. The BioArCh team at York (with our international collaborators) have recently discovered that microbial biomolecules survive in archaeological dental calculus3–5, providing access to an archive of microbial communities that have inhabited the human mouth for millennia. Through the extraction of ancient proteins from this preserved biofilm, we are beginning to explore how the diverse breadth of human dietary practices have influenced the evolution of our oral microbiome and ultimately our oral health6. However, in order to realistically compare the microbial communities of modern dental plaque, with those preserved in mineralized archaeological dental tartar, we need to understand the extent to which a mineralised biofilm is a reflection of its ‘living’ composition. What are the microbial and biomolecular biases associated with biofilm formation and mineralisation? What are the consequences of such biases in how we interpret long-term patterns of oral health?


‘Making Mouths’ will bring together and consolidate diverse biofilm expertise from each of the White Rose partners. The Leeds Dental School will synthetically generate oral biofilms comprised of key oral microbiota7,8. The University of Sheffield will subsequently mineralize these biofilms, in the presence of common food proteins replicating the formation of dental calculus on dental tissues9. York will extract proteins preceding, during and following biofilm mineralisation, and Sheffield will analyse these microbial communities through proteomic mass spectrometry10,11 . At a series of workshops, we will bring expertise across the three Universities to compare the composition and preservation of microbial proteins in non-mineralised, mineralised, and ancient biofilms in order to identify functional and taxonomic biases in the three substrates, providing the scaffolding for a large collaborative research network focused around human biofilms.

Other members associated with this collaboration

Dr Jessica Hendy, York
Prof. Matthew Collins, York
Prof. Jennifer Kirkham, Leeds
Dr Thuy Do, Leeds
Dr Jagroop Pandhal, Sheffield
Dr Colin Freeman Sheffield