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CAMBRIDGE, Mass., January 27, 2016 – A new study from the Forsyth Institute and the Marine Biological Laboratory provides a detailed look at how the microbes in the mouth coexist. Using a novel fluorescence imaging technique and DNA sequencing, the scientists have created a high-resolution map of the bacteria in dental plaque. For the first time, scientists can see where the bacteria are in relation to each other. This research is critical for gaining new understanding of how the bacteria interact and will ultimately clarify their role in health and disease.

This new imaging technique can be used to map and study other human microbiomes—such as the gut and the skin. In this study, the research team found that bacteria in the mouth form structures (that they termed “hedgehogs”), in which the organization of the bacteria suggest functional roles within the community.

“DNA sequencing does a great job of telling us what bacteria exist in the mouth,” said Dr. Gary Borisy, the paper’s primary author. “However, it leaves a big gap in our understanding of the microbiome. Without knowing what bacteria are next to each other—who is next to who and who is next to what—how can we possibly understand how they interact?  It’s like having an index of place names without a map. Our research provides the map, which will allow us to answer important questions about the relationship between the bacteria and the body – and ultimately help us to understand the effect on our overall health.”

The study, titled, “Biogeography of a human oral microbiome at the micron scale,” was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) epub January 25, 2016. The research is a collaboration between the Borisy and Dewhirst Labs at the Forsyth Institute and Harvard School of Dental Medicine and Mark Welch at the Marine Biological Laboratory and authored by Jessica L. Mark Welch, Blair J. Rossetti, Christopher W. Rieken, Floyd Dewhirst and Gary Borisy.