Caries ecology revisited: microbial dynamics and the caries process

Caries Res. 2008;42(6):409-18. doi: 10.1159/000159604. Epub 2008 Oct 3.


In this essay we propose an extension of the caries ecological hypothesis to explain the relation between dynamic changes in the phenotypic/genotypic properties of plaque bacteria and the demineralization/remineralization balance of the caries process. Dental plaque represents a microbial ecosystem in which non-mutans bacteria (mainly non-mutans streptococci and Actinomyces) are the key microorganisms responsible for maintaining dynamic stability on the tooth surface (dynamic stability stage). Microbial acid adaptation and subsequent acid selection of 'low-pH' non-mutans bacteria play a critical role for destabilizing the homeostasis of the plaque by facilitating a shift of the demineralization/remineralization balance from 'net mineral gain' to 'net mineral loss' (acidogenic stage). Once the acidic environment has been established, mutans streptococci and other aciduric bacteria may increase and promote lesion development by sustaining an environment characterized by 'net mineral loss' (aciduric stage). Hence, high proportions of mutans streptococci and/or other aciduric bacteria may be considered biomarkers of sites of particularly rapid caries progression. This cascade of events may change the surface texture of caries lesions from smooth to rough (enamel) or hard to soft (dentin). These clinical surface features can be reversed at any stage of lesion development provided that the acidogenic/aciduric properties of the biofilm are resolved. From an ecological point of view it is therefore not only important to describe which bacteria are involved in caries, but also to know what the bacteria are doing.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Bacteria / genetics
  • Bacterial Physiological Phenomena*
  • Biofilms
  • Dental Caries / microbiology*
  • Dental Plaque / microbiology
  • Ecosystem
  • Genotype
  • Humans
  • Phenotype