Treponema denticola is a spirochete bacterium found in the human mouth. It is associated with periodontal disease and can play a role in the development of infections deep in the root of the teeth. If large numbers of these bacteria are present in the mouth, the patient could be at increased risk of developing dental problems. People with existing disease often have a large colony of Treponema denticola growing along their teeth and gums. The bacteria are well-adapted to harsh conditions and have developed a number of mechanisms for surviving in the mouth.
These organisms are highly motile, meaning they can move independently and are very active. They have a distinctive spiral shape and are part of the group of bacteria classified as Gram negative; if they are subjected to a Gram stain, they will turn pink to red. Treponema denticola have been identified in evaluations of the human mouth since the early days of microscopy, when researchers first started looking at scrapings from their teeth and gums under magnification to find out more about the organisms they hosted.
They are anaerobes, not requiring oxygen to survive, and can feed on a variety of substances. Inside the mouth, Treponema denticola form colonies that live in plaque with other bacteria or form tough, resistant biofilms. They thrive in the environment below the surface, and can be difficult to eradicate because superficial oral care like brushing and using mouthwash will not remove established plaque.
Regular cleaning, including both the teeth and subgingival area, can remove buildups of plaque and biofilm to dislodge Treponema denticola. Patients with severe oral disease may need more extensive cleaning and scaling to successfully restore the surface of the teeth. In cases where an active infection is present because of Treponema denticola or another organism, treatment may include a root canal to remove damaged tissue, along with antibiotics to kill bacteria and restore the balance of bacterial flora inside the mouth.
Understanding oral bacteria can be important for researchers in the field of oral health. They study which organisms are present normally, and what happens when they become unbalanced. Results of studies can help researchers develop guidelines and recommendations for oral care, including information on how to read test results. Cultures revealing large numbers of Treponema denticola in a sample from a patient with unhealthy teeth, for example, can indicate a well-established infection that may be causing problems below the gums as well as on the surface.