Open Access Research article

Denitrification in human dental plaque

Frank Schreiber1*, Peter Stief1, Armin Gieseke1, Ines M Heisterkamp1, Willy Verstraete2, Dirk de Beer1 and Paul Stoodley34

Author Affiliations

1 Microsensor Research Group, Max-Planck-Institute for Marine Microbiology, Bremen, Germany

2 Laboratory of Microbial Ecology and Technology (LabMET), Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium

3 Center for Genomic Sciences, Allegheny General Hospital/Allegheny-Singer Research Institute, Pittsburgh, PA, USA

4 National Centre for Advanced Tribology at Southampton (nCATS), School of Engineering Sciences, University of Southampton, Southampton, UK

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BMC Biology 2010, 8:24  doi:10.1186/1741-7007-8-24

Published: 22 March 2010



Microbial denitrification is not considered important in human-associated microbial communities. Accordingly, metabolic investigations of the microbial biofilm communities of human dental plaque have focused on aerobic respiration and acid fermentation of carbohydrates, even though it is known that the oral habitat is constantly exposed to nitrate (NO3-) concentrations in the millimolar range and that dental plaque houses bacteria that can reduce this NO3- to nitrite (NO2-).


We show that dental plaque mediates denitrification of NO3- to nitric oxide (NO), nitrous oxide (N2O), and dinitrogen (N2) using microsensor measurements, 15N isotopic labelling and molecular detection of denitrification genes. In vivo N2O accumulation rates in the mouth depended on the presence of dental plaque and on salivary NO3- concentrations. NO and N2O production by denitrification occurred under aerobic conditions and was regulated by plaque pH.


Increases of NO concentrations were in the range of effective concentrations for NO signalling to human host cells and, thus, may locally affect blood flow, signalling between nerves and inflammatory processes in the gum. This is specifically significant for the understanding of periodontal diseases, where NO has been shown to play a key role, but where gingival cells are believed to be the only source of NO. More generally, this study establishes denitrification by human-associated microbial communities as a significant metabolic pathway which, due to concurrent NO formation, provides a basis for symbiotic interactions.