Streptococcus mutans, a gram-positive immobile bacterium, is an oral pathogen considered to be the principal etiologic agent of dental caries. Although some researches suggest that trace metals, including iron, can be associated with dental caries, the function of salivary iron and lactoferrin in the human oral cavity remains unclear. The data reported in this study indicates that iron-deprived saliva (Fe3+ < 0.1 microM) increases S. mutans aggregation and biofilm formation in the fluid and adherent phases as compared with saliva (Fe3+ from 0.1 to 1 microM), while iron-loaded saliva (Fe3+ > 1 microM) inhibits both phenomena. Our findings are consistent with the hypothesis that S. mutans aggregation and biofilm formation are negatively iron-modulated as confirmed by the different effect of bovine lactoferrin (bLf), added to saliva at physiological concentration (20 microg/ml) in the apo- or iron-saturated form. Even if saliva itself induces bacterial aggregation, iron binding capability of apo-bLf is responsible for the noticeable increase of bacterial aggregation and biofilm development in the fluid and adherent phases. On the contrary, iron-saturated bLf decreases aggregation and biofilm development by supplying iron to S. mutans. Therefore, the iron-withholding capability of apo-Lf or native Lf is an important signal to which S. mutans counteracts by leaving the planktonic state and entering into a new lifestyle, biofilm, to colonize and persist in the human oral cavity. In addition, another function of bLf, unrelated to its iron binding capability, is responsible for the inhibition of the adhesion of S. mutans free, aggregated or biofilm on abiotic surfaces. Both these activities of lactoferrin, related and unrelated to the iron binding capability, could have a key role in protecting the human oral cavity from S. mutans pathogenicity.