Tiny teeth-cleaning robots could soon calm your fears of the dentist

A visit to the dentist typically involves time-consuming and sometimes unsettling scraping with mechanical tools to remove plaque from teeth. Plaque deposits are usually the product of biofilms – little communities of micro-organisms, bacterial and otherwise, that gather together and coat on your choppers, as well as water pipes, catheters, and other tough-to-clean items. When bacteria gang up in these gloopy films, they can become far more resistant to antibiotics than usual and also quite tough to break – hence why dentists have to spend so much time scraping away at plaque deposits on your teeth in a fiddly and uncomfortable process that’s probably about as much fun for the dentist as it is for the patient. Luckily, those visits to the dentist could soon become a thing of the past as engineers, biologists, and dentists have teamed up together to develop a microscopic robotic cleaning crew designed to break up biofilms and clean a range of different surfaces. Together, the inter-disciplinary team designed, optimized, and tested two types of robotic systems, which the group calls catalytic antimicrobial robots, or CARs, capable of degrading and removing biofilms. The trial proved to be a success. The team suspended their CARs in a solution and steered them around magnetically to precision-clean both flat glass surfaces and enclosed tubes. The micro-robots not only degraded and broke up the biofilm, but they also dragged the degraded gunk out with them, leaving no trace of biofilm behind. Emboldened by success, the team moved on to a human tooth, and found that not only were they able to effectively clean the outside surface very effectively, but they could also clean out tough-to-access areas like the isthmus of the tooth – a channel in between root canals that biofilms love, and which is very hard to clean using traditional methods.

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