Bioteeth may soon be grown in human jaws from gum tissue.
Shutterstock Bioteeth may soon be grown in human jaws from gum tissue.

Biomimicry offers a provocative new model for the development of designs and technologies based on biology, and it is driving the pursuits of a variety of disciplines. However, the term can be misleading in its simplicity. The reality may be understood as a spectrum of approaches related to mimicking nature: at one end is taking simple inspiration from life, and at the other is actually creating new life.

An example of the latter case may be found in the work of professor Paul Sharpe at King's College London's Dental Institute. Sharpe, who focuses on craniofacial development and stem cell biology, is attempting to create new teeth replacements out of biological cells from patients' own gum tissue.

Current artificial tooth implants cannot replicate the root structures of natural teeth, and result in jaw bone loss. As an alternative, Sharpe's "bioteeth" may be grown within an adult jaw from simulated immature (baby) teeth that are composed of the proper mix of cells. "What is required is the identification of adult sources of human epithelial and mesenchymal cells that can be obtained in sufficient numbers to make biotooth formation a viable alternative to dental implants," said Sharpe in a King's College London press release.

This research, which is currently being tested on mice, may soon become a reality for humans. The implications are obviously significant for other parts of the human anatomy—such as bones or organ tissues, or perhaps entire limbs. As scientists increasingly turn inspiration from life into re-engineering life itself, they shift roles from biomimics to bioengineers. As a result, technological development has begun to adopt a trajectory more similar to that of natural evolution.

Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.