New technologies have provided novel insights into how dental plaque functions as a biofilm. Confocal microscopy has confirmed that plaque has an open architecture similar to other biofilms, with channels and voids. Gradients develop in areas of dense biomass over short distances in key parameters that influence microbial growth and distribution. Bacteria exhibit an altered pattern of gene expression either as a direct result of being on a surface or indirectly as a response to the local environmental heterogeneity within the biofilm. Bacteria communicate via small diffusible signalling molecules (e.g. competence-stimulating peptide, CSP; autoinducer 2); CSP induces both genetic competence and acid tolerance in recipient sessile cells. Thus, rates of gene transfer increase in biofilm communities, and this is one of several mechanisms (others include: diffusion-reaction, neutralization/inactivation, slow growth rates, novel phenotype) that contribute to the increased antimicrobial resistance exhibited by bacteria in biofilms. Oral bacteria in plaque do not exist as independent entities but function as a co-ordinated, spatially organized and fully metabolically integrated microbial community, the properties of which are greater than the sum of the component species. A greater understanding of the significance of dental plaque as a mixed culture biofilm will lead to novel control strategies.

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