Researcher cuts teeth in new method

April 6, 2012 By Jamie Hanlon
UAlberta researcher Nicole Burt

University of Alberta researcher Nicole Burt took up an odd moonlighting job to further her research. She became a surrogate tooth fairy.

Burt, a in , was looking for a way to test a method she developed to get a more of particular isotopic signals from , specifically on early maternal and infant diets in . However, before the process was applied to those , she needed modern samples to make sure her device and testing methods yielded the results she was looking for—and with good reason.

“When you’re doing things that are destructive to whatever you’re collecting, researchers want to know the method works before they let you use an archaeological population,” said Burt.

The Tooth Fairy Project

She teamed with Dr. Maryam Amin in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry to start a voluntary tooth collection program from children visiting the faculty’s dental clinic. Children between birth and nine years old were asked to donate their teeth extracted for medical reasons during a visit, in exchange for a gift from the researching “tooth fairy.”

The benefit of the furnished fangs is that they come with fewer unknowns than samples recovered from an excavation. Sandra Garvie-Lok, Burt’s adviser, says that using samples from living donors gives archaeological researchers a better way to look at the process of tooth formation.

“You don’t know at all what a child from the past was eating. You don’t know how healthy they were before they died,” said Garvie-Lok. “Using a modern sample eliminates some of those unknowns and so it puts the research method on a firmer ground.”

The truth is in the tooth

Using her homemade device, Burt cut the donated teeth longitudinally through the centre, exposing, among other things, the neonatal line that forms in a child’s tooth at birth. Using micro-sized samples of the teeth, she was able to detect dietary isotopic signals from the times those parts of the teeth formed—from before birth to about three years of age. This let her extract the weaning information she was looking for, as well as some other interesting findings.

“In this case, very interestingly, we had a really tight, specific ‘toddler’ ,” said Burt. “The children had a specific diet that’s different from their mother’s but is similar to each other’s.”

Something old, something new

Burt’s method has the potential to transform how certain aspects of population studies are conducted. The isotopic signals gathered will reflect diet in specific age ranges of youth from before birth to the toddler years. They will identify the weaning and dietary habits of a site’s inhabitants and also allow children’s health to be compared with their in-utero isotopic signals, which reflect their mothers’ diets.

“Because this method uses the remains of older children to provide information on infant and toddler diets, it will be useful at sites where few infant remains were recovered,” said Garvie-Lok. “The results will provide more detail on a given population or allow the study of smaller populations that previously would have been grouped together in research findings.”

The method might also be used to collect similar weaning and dietary information in developing countries where medical records are scarce and the ability to compare children’s health with the isotopic record of their nutrition in utero and during infancy may be helpful.

Burt is excited about the opportunities that her device and may hold for herself and other researchers.

“It’s very exciting. I know how I’ll use it for my research, but it’s nice to know that you’re creating something that could help a lot of people with research questions they have that I could not even possibly think of,” she said.

Explore further: Early oral health care is important to a child's development

Related Stories

The kids are alright

May 26, 2011

Children should be seen and not heard... who says? A Philosophy academic at The University of Nottingham is challenging the adage by teaching primary school children to argue properly.

Not all children's multivitamins are created equal

April 14, 2011

Many parents give their children some form of multivitamin to ensure they are receiving necessary amounts of vitamins and minerals. They may not be enough, however, if a child’s diet is lacking iron or calcium, according ...

'Motherese' important for children's language development

May 6, 2011

(Medical Xpress) -- Talking to children has always been fundamental to language development, but new research reveals that the way we talk to children is key to building their ability to understand and create sentences of ...

A fetus can sense mom’s psychological state

November 10, 2011

(Medical Xpress) -- As a fetus grows, it’s constantly getting messages from its mother. It’s not just hearing her heartbeat and whatever music she might play to her belly; it also gets chemical signals through the ...

Recommended for you

Scientific advances can make it easier to recycle plastics

November 17, 2017

Most of the 150 million tons of plastics produced around the world every year end up in landfills, the oceans and elsewhere. Less than 9 percent of plastics are recycled in the United States, rising to about 30 percent in ...

The spliceosome—now available in high definition

November 17, 2017

UCLA researchers have solved the high-resolution structure of a massive cellular machine, the spliceosome, filling the last major gap in our understanding of the RNA splicing process that was previously unclear.

Ionic 'solar cell' could provide on-demand water desalination

November 15, 2017

Modern solar cells, which use energy from light to generate electrons and holes that are then transported out of semiconducting materials and into external circuits for human use, have existed in one form or another for over ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.