Oral Lactobacilli and Dental Caries: A Model for Niche Adaptation in Humans

J Dent Res. 2015 Sep;94(9 Suppl):110S-8S. doi: 10.1177/0022034515576052. Epub 2015 Mar 10.


Lactobacilli have been associated with dental caries for over a century. Here, we review the pertinent literature along with findings from our own study to formulate a working hypothesis about the natural history and role of lactobacilli. Unlike most indigenous microbes that stably colonize a host, lactobacilli appear to be planktonic, opportunistic settlers that can gather and multiply only in certain restrictive niches of the host, at least within the oral cavity. We postulate that the following essential requirements are necessary for sustained colonization of lactobacilli in humans: 1) a stagnant, retentive niche that is mostly anaerobic; 2) a low pH milieu; and 3) ready access to carbohydrates. Three sites on the human body meet these specifications: caries lesions, the stomach, and the vagina. Only a handful of Lactobacillus species is found in caries lesions, but they are largely absent in caries-free children. Lactobacilli present in caries lesions represent both a major contributor to caries progression and a major reservoir to the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. We extend the assertion from other investigators that lactobacilli found in the GI tract originate in the oral cavity by proposing that lactobacilli in the oral cavity arise from caries lesions. This, in turn, leads us to reflect on the health implications of the lactobacilli in the mouth and downstream GI and to ponder whether these or any of the Lactobacillus species are truly indigenous to the human GI tract or the oral cavity.

Keywords: Lactobacillus; colonization; gastrointestinal tract; mouth; mutans streptococci; natural history.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anaerobiosis
  • Dental Caries / microbiology*
  • Disease Progression
  • Gastrointestinal Tract / microbiology
  • Humans
  • Hydrogen-Ion Concentration
  • Lactobacillus / classification
  • Lactobacillus / physiology*
  • Mouth / microbiology*
  • Streptococcus mutans / physiology
  • Sucrose / metabolism


  • Sucrose