What began as a quest for a hull cleaning method became a discovery that could prevent tooth decay. 

A microbe found on the surface of seaweed, earlier studied to help clean hulls of ships, may be harnessed to clean teeth, a new study reports.

According to the researchers from Newcastle University, an enzyme from the microbe Bacillus licheniformis protects dentures and cleans teeth and gums.

Toothpaste is effective in cleaning teeth but at times they can remove the protective enamel from the teeth. This is why people who brush regularly develop cavities.

“Plaque on your teeth is made up of bacteria which join together to colonise an area in a bid to push out any potential competitors. Traditional toothpastes work by scrubbing off the plaque containing the bacteria – but that’s not always effective - which is why people who religiously clean their teeth can still develop cavities," explained Dr. Nicholas Jakubovics, in a Newcastle University press release.

Test tube results have shown promise and now the researchers are working on getting the technology in a consumer product.

“Work in a test tube has shown that this enzyme can cut through the plaque or layer of bacteria and we want to harness this power into a paste, mouthwash or denture cleaning solution," Dr Jakubovics said.

Under threat the bacteria develops a slimy layer around itself. This layer called as a biofilm, keeps the bacterial colony intact and also helps it stick to a surface (like plaque). However, when the bacteria want to move on, it breaks down the DNA of the slimy layer with an enzyme. Thus, the bacteria actually wash itself away along with the plaque.

“When I initially began researching how to break down these layers of bacteria, I was interested in how we could keep the hulls of ships clear but we soon realised that the mechanism we had discovered had much wider uses. If we can contain it within toothpaste we would be creating a product which could prevent tooth decay," said Professor Grant Burgess, who led the study.

The enzymes' application doesn't end with hulls and teeth, researchers say that it can be used in many areas.

“This is just one of the uses we are developing for the enzyme as it has huge potential such as in helping keep clean medical implants such as artificial hips and speech valves which also suffer from biofilm infection," said Professor Burgess.

The researchers presented their study at Society for Applied Microbiology Summer conference and should be considered preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal.