Similar to the heart, our tongue is one of the most active muscles in our body. It’s a tool we use every day to eat, speak, and taste. However, up until recently, researchers have been able to look closer at the tongue and the role it plays in housing a variety of bacteria.
“Bacteria on the tongue are a lot more than just a random pile. They are more like an organ of our bodies,” says Gary Borisy, a researcher at the Forsyth Institute and the Harvard School of Dental Medicine.
Graphical Tongue Abstract:
A plethora of information can be gathered from the tongue whether it be for ancestral DNA testing or for medical and health purposes. These microscopic living beings play different roles for different purposes. For example, as pictured in the image above, the central gray area serves as the epithelial tissue which serves as the outer flesh. The points of red stemming from the gray center are known as Actinomyces. These are harmless bacteria also found in the throat, digestive and urinary tracts. Each color represents a respective duty such as turning nitrates found in leafy greens into nitrite—which helps control blood pressure. The green areas depict Streptococcus, the popular bacteria, that exists on the outer edge of the tongue.
To identify these markers, researchers used a new technique called Combinatorial Labeling and Spectral Imaging Fluorescence in situ Hybridization (CLASI-FISH). CLASI-FISH is a process of labeling microorganisms with fluorescent chemicals to activate multiple wavelengths. It makes the “invisible” visible by lighting up areas of the tongue all at once. The image shows a diverse ecosystem similar to that of a jungle where all roles have specific purposes while contributing to the whole. In a similar way, this area of the body has many mysteries to teach us as research continues to develop.
“Collectively, our species-level imaging results confirm and deepen our understanding of the habitat specificity of key players and show the value of investigating microbiomes at high imaging and identification resolution,” Borisy states in his paper. By documenting each area of the tongue, researchers may be better equipped to understand the various components that make up our tongues and what helps them thrive.
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