How lizards make new teeth

Studying bearded dragon lizards reveals new mechanisms for how teeth regenerate.

Bearded dragon lizards can shed light on the mechanisms regulating tooth replacement. Image credit: Nicolas Di-Poi (CC BY 4.0)

All multicellular organisms, from lizards to humans, must be able to repair and regrow damaged tissue. This includes not only healing after an injury, but also replacing parts of the body that suffer wear and tear. For example, many animals shed and replace worn out teeth throughout their life, but the number of times this occurs varies greatly between species.

Much of the understanding about how teeth grow and develop has come from researching mice. However, mice only develop one set of teeth, making them a poor ‘model’ for studying how species such as fish and reptiles can re-grow and replace their teeth. Recent studies of these species has shown that regenerating teeth relies on a specialised structure known as the dental lamina. In mice, the dental lamina forms but then quickly disappears, preventing new sets of teeth from developing. In most animals that regrow their teeth, however, the dental lamina keeps growing beyond the most recently produced tooth to create an area where its replacement will emerge. Now, Salomies et al. have identified other strategies involved in tooth replacement from studying the bearded dragon lizard, a rare example of an animal that continuously regenerates some, but not all, of its teeth.

Analysing the cells in different parts of the re-growing teeth from bearded dragon lizards revealed new features of the dental lamina. Specifically, Salomies et al. found that a previously uncharacterized set of genes within the dental lamina could determine whether or not a tooth will be replaced. Further experiments using microscope imaging revealed that bearded dragon lizards use two distinct groups of stem cells – specialised cells that have the potential to develop into various cell types in the body – to re-grow their teeth. These experiments demonstrate how the bearded dragon lizard uses a previously unknown mechanism to regenerate its teeth, combining elements used by gecko lizards and sharks.

These findings are an important step towards understanding the different strategies animals can use to maintain and regenerate their teeth. The knowledge gained could one day help design better therapies for patients suffering from inherited dental disorders or tooth loss.