Background: The patterning cascade model of tooth morphogenesis accounts for shape development through the interaction of a small number of genes. In the model, gene expression both directs development and is controlled by the shape of developing teeth. Enamel knots (zones of nonproliferating epithelium) mark the future sites of cusps. In order to form, a new enamel knot must escape the inhibitory fields surrounding other enamel knots before crown components become spatially fixed as morphogenesis ceases. Because cusp location on a fully formed tooth reflects enamel knot placement and tooth size is limited by the cessation of morphogenesis, the model predicts that cusp expression varies with intercusp spacing relative to tooth size. Although previous studies in humans have supported the model's implications, here we directly test the model's predictions for the expression, size, and symmetry of Carabelli cusp, a variation present in many human populations.
Methodology/principal findings: In a dental cast sample of upper first molars (M1s) (187 rights, 189 lefts, and 185 antimeric pairs), we measured tooth area and intercusp distances with a Hirox digital microscope. We assessed Carabelli expression quantitatively as an area in a subsample and qualitatively using two typological schemes in the full sample. As predicted, low relative intercusp distance is associated with Carabelli expression in both right and left samples using either qualitative or quantitative measures. Furthermore, asymmetry in Carabelli area is associated with asymmetry in relative intercusp spacing.
Conclusions/significance: These findings support the model's predictions for Carabelli cusp expression both across and within individuals. By comparing right-left pairs of the same individual, our data show that small variations in developmental timing or spacing of enamel knots can influence cusp pattern independently of genotype. Our findings suggest that during evolution new cusps may first appear as a result of small changes in the spacing of enamel knots relative to crown size.