Crowning Glory: A Conversation with Dental Sciences Researcher Stefan Habelitz

By Jeff Miller

Illustration of toy teeth
Photo of Stefan Habelitz

Stefan Habelitz

Americans spend nearly $2 billion every year whitening their teeth. Yes, that’s right: $2 billion. I wonder how many spend even a second thinking about what they are whitening. Probably not many. Enamel has simply become a billboard upon which to advertise health and vitality.

Yet tooth enamel is far more than a billboard. UCSF School of Dentistry researcher Stefan Habelitz, PhD, has been studying this wondrous and complicated crystalline product for more than a decade. Only now are the rules laid down by millions of years of evolution being deciphered. Habelitz is one of the translators.

So what? you ask – while not, I hope, chewing at the same time. My response: Take the long view. Dinosaurs had teeth coated in enamel. And so do fish. This is not to mention crocodiles, whose powerful teeth have been with us for 95 million years – and whose biting power ranks just behind that of that legendary flesh-shredder Tyrannosaurus rex.

Human teeth might not pack the same kind of punch, but they are tough and built to last a lifetime with proper care. Topping the tooth is the glorious enamel crown, which comes complete with a clever protective system that allows it to crack without breaking, at least when everything is working well.

But the most intriguing characteristic of all is how a largely inorganic substance like enamel is created by a very organic process involving proteins. How does this happen? And what does it mean when scientists like Habelitz break the code? Will we have enamel-stimulating toothpaste? Will we able to grow entirely new, natural teeth? And will we be able to synthetically create a vast array of new biomaterials that function as super-fast circuits on a nanometer scale?

Habelitz has the answers.

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Related Links

Tooth Enamel
Materials Chemistry
Atomic Force Microscope Study of Dental Enamel Structure and Synthesis (PDF)
Dr. Stefan Habelitz and F. Michael Serry Veeco Instruments Inc.
Something to Chew on: Hard Facts About Tooth Enamel
Science News, May 14, 2005
UCSF School of Dentistry