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The Bradford Tooth Fairy Project

Human dentine - a unique biomarker for in utero experience and nutritional stress in the womb and a predictor of health in later life?

Academic Lead: Dr Julia Beaumont

The quality of the in utero environment can affect the long-term health of an adult. From modern studies of nutritional stress we know physiological changes, as well as dietary information, are recorded in incrementally-growing tissues such as hair and fingernails through changes in the nitrogen (δ15N) and carbon isotope ratios (δ13C). Raised δ15N related to the period of starvation was identified in my study of teeth from Irish Famine victims.

The only extant tissue in the human body formed in utero is primary dentine within deciduous teeth. I have developed a novel method of analysing tiny archaeological dentine samples showing that in utero nitrogen isotope ratios are higher and wider in range than predicted: thus if high nitrogen values reflect maternal/infant stress during pregnancy this could then be used to reconstruct the diet and health of the mother, and thus the developing infant. A small pilot study of modern teeth with perinatal medical histories suggests this is the case.

Being awarded the Rank Prize New Lecturer award allows me to collect 250 exfoliated or extracted deciduous teeth together with medical histories in collaboration with Ethical Tissue and to analyse them at the Bradford isotope laboratory in order to provide proof-of-concept for a much larger study of diet and physiology during childhood. It would then be possible to use measurement of dentine as a technique to identify children at risk of disease in later life, as a forensic tool in cases of neglect, and also to study the maternal/infant health in ancient populations.