For anyone who has regular trouble with their teeth, science has some good news. Humans could one day grow beaks, a biologist has predicted. Unlike teeth, a beak would not rot, chip or fall out. This would make it 'more robust and practical', says Dr Gareth Fraser, a biologist at Sheffield University.
The bad news for anyone dreading an imminent trip to the dentist, is that the change – in which the teeth would fuse together to form a tough, pointy beak – is several million years away.
Dr Fraser is interested in why humans make only two sets of teeth – baby teeth and adult ones – while some creatures create an endless supply. A shark, for instance, will grow new teeth around once a fortnight. And pufferfish, or blowfish, constantly produce the tooth-like material that their beak is made from, meaning any wear and tear is rapidly patched up.
Dr Fraser has identified the cells behind this constant regeneration. Nicknamed 'tooth fairy' cells, they could hold the key to allowing us to grow set after set of teeth. This would allow us to grow extra teeth as needed. It may also be possible for us to grow teeth that are nicer than nature intended.
Dr Fraser said: 'I guess people will be looking at whether you can make perfect teeth. But there will always be orthodontists employed because even when you have new teeth, there is going to be a need for positioning. With our extended lives and modern diets, the limited supply of human teeth is really no longer fit for purpose. Our research is focused on looking for ways in which we can replicate the way that fish create an endless supply of teeth and bring this capability to humans.'
But don't stop taking care of your teeth yet – Dr Fraser estimates it will be around 50 years before we can grow extra teeth as needed. In the shorter-term, it may be possible to create gels and creams that repair rotten and damaged teeth, removing the need for fillings.
Eventually, evolution may provide its own solution. Dr Fraser said: 'It could be possible for humans to evolve to grow beaks, like pufferfish, which may be more robust and practical.'
The spiny, highly poisonous pufferfish, begins it life with teeth but they quickly morph into a beak that is used to open shells and crush and cut fish. Despite the durability of a beak, Dr Fraser would prefer to keep his teeth. He said: 'I am happy with the shape of the teeth I have – although I would like more of them.'