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Abiotic tooth enamel created

Material composed of zinc oxide columns in a polymer matrix has properties similar to those of teeth

by Elizabeth K. Wilson
March 6, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 10

Micrographs showing the structure of a human tooth and a zinc oxide composite.
Credit: Nature
Micrographs show the structure of a human tooth (left) and a synthetic enamel made of zinc oxide columns.

Scientists have created a new synthetic material with the properties of tooth enamel, setting the stage for advances in tooth repair or replacement (Nature 2017, DOI: 10.1038/nature21410). Tooth enamel from all species has a similar structure: microsized ceramic columns in a soft protein matrix. An international team led by Nicholas A. Kotov of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, prepared arrays of micrometer-scale zinc oxide columns to form “nanowire carpets.” Then the researchers embedded the columns in a polyallylamine matrix. They built up the material by repeating the process, adding more layers of the polymer-impregnated columns on top of each other. The material has a collection of properties—stiffness, density, and vibrational damping—that are similar to or better than those of tooth enamel and that haven’t been combined in one synthetic material before. More work needs to be done to scale up to the size of teeth without defects. But, the authors write, “our replication of columnar nanocomposites opens a new approach to the design of load-bearing, vibration- and aging-resistant, light materials.”


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