CLEMSON — A Clemson University researcher is embarking on a mission to help fight the most prevalent chronic disease plaguing Americans today.

Video credit: Clemson University

The disease is tooth decay and Vincent Richards, an assistant professor in the university’s biological sciences department, is working with researchers from the University of Florida to determine which bacteria can help promote oral health. The study is funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). According to the NIH, tooth decay, also called dental caries, is the most prevalent chronic disease that is preventable in both children and adults.

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“This study will help us determine how bacteria associated with tooth decay interact with one another as the disease progresses,” Richards said. “This will allow a better understanding of tooth decay so that a probiotic can be created to help fend off this disease.”

According to Richards, many microorganisms live inside each person’s mouth. There are good bacteria—probiotics—and there are bad bacteria. The bacteria change as tooth decay progresses, making the disease much worse.

“We’ve known for a while many of the microorganisms associated with tooth decay,” Richards said. “During this study, we will be doing genetic research to determine which bacteria can help fight against tooth decay.”

The study is a five-year project funded by a $628,828 NIH grant, of which Clemson gets $237,554.

“What we aim to do is use DNA and RNA sequencing to better understand how these good and bad bacteria differ at the genetic, or more precisely, genomic level,” Richards said.

Richards is using a genome sequencer he acquired last year. The first technology of its kind on the Clemson campus, Richards said the genome sequencer is “the next generation in sequencing.” This technology allows researchers to determine entire genome sequences and measure the activity of all metabolic and biochemical pathways within the genome.

Genome sequencing involves extracting DNA from living organisms and conducting a comprehensive genetic analysis. Data from the sequencer are transferred to powerful computers where it can be read and analyzed. Information provided by the sequencer can prove valuable in many instances.

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“Genomic information can help identify mutations and genes associated with virulent pathogens, measure the genetic activity of these factors, profile microbial communities, as well as track diseases,” Richards said. “By determining how the good and bad bacteria on our teeth interact, we can develop new strategies to help prevent tooth decay.”

Because the genome sequencer is the only one on Clemson’s campus, Richards invites other researchers to let him help them with any genetic sequencing tasks they may have.

“We can work together and they won’t have to outsource their genetic sequencing tasks,” he said. “They can keep their work here on campus and get the results quicker.”