Mary Ellen Davey, an associate professor of oral biology at UF’s College of Dentistry, studies the complex assembly of cellular organisms living in the human mouth. Known as the oral microbiome, these cellular communities play a key role in oral health. But shifts in their composition can allow pathogens to dominate an otherwise-healthy oral microbiome, which can result in tissue and bone damage from gum diseases.
Davey said that gum diseases – chronic inflammatory illnesses linked to rheumatoid arthritis, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and more – affect up to 50% of adults in the U.S., costing patients more than $14 billion annually to prevent and treat.
Davey, also interim chair of the Department of Oral Biology, began studying the human microbiome after studying microbial ecology and genetics as a Ph.D. student at Michigan State University. Today, she focuses on the role that anaerobic bacteria, organisms that can grow and reproduce without oxygen, play in oral disease.
“My overall goal is to increase our understanding of host-microbiome homeostasis,” she said.
Davey, who arrived at UF in 2013, has won grants totaling more than $4.7 million. She was recently the principal investigator on two grants from the National Institutes of Health to study Porphyromonas gingivalis, a common anaerobic pathogen also found in the digestive system, respiratory tract and colon.
She and her team analyzed how P. gingivalis senses and responds to conditions suitable for it to grow, illuminating how it can transform “a benign microbial community to a pathogenic one,” Davey said. Researchers also used DNA analysis to examine the proteins regulating the pathogen’s genes, identifying new mechanisms clinicians can target to heal patients.
“The Davey lab is focused on determining how and why this bacterium shifts from a balanced life with its host to a destructive pathogen,” she said.
Learn more about Davey’s work.
Learn more about the Davey Lab at UF.