Microbial ecology of dental plaque and its significance in health and disease

Adv Dent Res. 1994 Jul;8(2):263-71. doi: 10.1177/08959374940080022001.


Dental plaque forms naturally on teeth and is of benefit to the host by helping to prevent colonization by exogenous species. The bacterial composition of plaque remains relatively stable despite regular exposure to minor environmental perturbations. This stability (microbial homeostasis) is due in part to a dynamic balance of both synergistic and antagonistic microbial interactions. However, homeostasis can break down, leading to shifts in the balance of the microflora, thereby predisposing sites to disease. For example, the frequent exposure of plaque to low pH leads to inhibition of acid-sensitive species and the selection of organisms with an aciduric physiology, such as mutans streptococci and lactobacilli. Similarly, plaque accumulation around the gingival margin leads to an inflammatory host response and an increased flow of gingival crevicular fluid. The subgingival microflora shifts from being mainly Gram-positive to being comprised of increased levels of obligately anaerobic, asaccharolytic Gram-negative organisms. It is proposed that disease can be prevented or treated not only by targeting the putative pathogens but also by interfering with the processes that drive the breakdown in homeostasis. Thus, the rate of acid production following sugar intake could be reduced by fluoride, alternative sweeteners, and low concentrations of antimicrobial agents, while oxygenating or redox agents could raise the Eh of periodontal pockets and prevent the growth and metabolism of obligately anaerobic species. These views have been incorporated into a modified hypothesis (the "ecological plaque hypothesis") to explain the relationship between the plaque microflora and the host in health and disease, and to identify new strategies for disease prevention.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Bacteria, Anaerobic / metabolism
  • Bacteria, Anaerobic / pathogenicity
  • Dental Caries / microbiology
  • Dental Caries / prevention & control
  • Dental Plaque / microbiology*
  • Ecosystem
  • Gram-Negative Anaerobic Bacteria / metabolism
  • Gram-Negative Anaerobic Bacteria / pathogenicity
  • Gram-Positive Bacteria / metabolism
  • Gram-Positive Bacteria / pathogenicity
  • Homeostasis / physiology
  • Humans
  • Periodontal Diseases / microbiology
  • Periodontal Diseases / prevention & control