More and more research is establishing that a person’s risk of gum disease doesn’t relate just to diet and oral hygiene, but is partly determined by their genes. However, there’s more to the story, too, and it turns out that epigenetics may actually hold the key to preventing gum disease, stopping tooth loss, and protecting dental implants, according to an article published in the Australian Dental Journal.

What Is Epigenetics?

Epigenetics is the study of factors that control how our body regulates and changes its genetic code. The word means “above genetics,” and in many ways this new understanding of our genes makes more of an impact on our lives than just our genes.

The epigenome is related to the structure of our DNA, and it determines which parts of our genetic code can be accessed, and which can’t. In this way it controls when and for how long certain parts of our genetic code can be accessed and therefore expressed. This is related to regular patterns, such as our developmental stage, but it can also be influenced by immediate events or those in the relatively recent past. For example, epigenetics can pass on additional information about our recent past–such as our grandparents’ lives–that can alter the way our genes work.

The epigenome determines how our body responds to many environmental factors, such as diet and disease.

The Potential Role of Epigenetics in Dentistry

In their article, researchers at the University of Adelaide claim that epigenetics may hold the key to understanding and even controlling our body’s response to bacteria.

The body’s response to bacteria may be even more important to gum disease than the bacteria itself. When your body responds to infection, the resulting inflammation and other immune responses can contribute to bone loss and ligament damage that leads to tooth loss.

Epigenetics may help us to classify your gum disease based on more factors. Currently, we can tell what bacteria are in your mouth, and tell whether you have a genetic tendency toward serious gum disease, but we may also be able to determine whether your body is triggering a negative response.

Beyond understanding, epigenetics may give us the ability to turn on or off the genes responsible for negative bodily responses. We may be able to turn off your body’s response to gum disease to prevent tooth loss and give time for our treatments, such as antibiotics, to work. This could prevent tooth loss or protect dental implants.

We may even be able to turn on your body’s tooth growth mechanism, allowing you to grow back a lost tooth.

Although these are all just possibilities, they seem more in our reach than ever.