Most Tetrahymena live relatively peaceful lives. The single-celled ciliate protozoa swim around in pond water, reproduce by dividing themselves, and graze happily on bacteria. Sadly though, some Tetrahymena have their lives tragically cut short when they’re doused with concentrated e-cig vapor in a school classroom.
The Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine has developed an “educational toolkit” for high schools that “encourages students to directly test the effects of e-cigarette vapor on living cells,” according to Cornell’s press release. The kits are free to the schools; no information was given on what e-liquids were used for the kits.
Cornell is home to the Advancing Secondary Science Education through Tetrahymena (ASSET) program, a National Institutes of Health-funded operation that develops Tetrahymena-based “modular science education materials designed to stimulate hands-on, inquiry-based learning of fundamental biological concepts.” If you want to kill protozoa with chemicals, these folks can help.
“Substances that affect Tetrahymena’s basic cell functions may also interfere with similar human cell functions, such as human cilia that help move harmful inhaled material out of the lungs,” says ASSET program manager Dr. Donna Cassidy-Hanley.
“Human lung cells grown in tissue culture are commonly used to study the effects of e-cigarette vapor on living cells in research labs, but that’s obviously not possible in a classroom,” Cassidy-Hanley says.
But even testing foreign substances on actual cultured human cells doesn’t necessarily produce the same results those substances would when inside a living person. Unlike cells in a petri dish, live humans have active immune systems that work constantly to repel invaders. Cornell is stretching reality by implying that pond-dwelling protozoa drowned in nicotine and flavorings work as stand-ins for the cells in working human lungs.
What do you suppose happens when hapless single-celled creatures have their balanced aquatic environment assaulted with a mix of PG, VG, nicotine, and the many chemicals in food flavorings? A Tetrahymena holocaust, that’s what. It’s like releasing a rattlesnake in a prairie dog burrow—except you have to view the slaughter through a microscope, and rattlesnakes don’t taste like strawberry parfait.
Still, the kids seem to be enjoying the program. There have been lots of local news stories hyping the toolkit—all in the interest of education about the evils of vaping, of course. Sure, it’s pure propaganda, but what’s a little exaggeration and distortion among friends?
Pouring vapor concentrate onto Tetrahymena supposedly teaches the kids what would happen if they inhaled real e-cig vapor. “They either stopped moving or died, or they like slowed down and changed shapes,” 9th grader Ella Card told WICZ-TV. I often slow down and change shapes myself while vaping, so it sounds legit.
Cornell hosts the Tetrahymena Stock Center, which sells a “diverse array of a wild type, mutant, and genetically engineered strains” of Tetrahymena. They also sell purified Tetrahymena DNA, and other ciliate stuff. The Stock Center is also funded by the NIH, which partners with the FDA Center for Tobacco Products to decide which vaping and nicotine studies get funding dollars from the CTP’s $700 million budget.
Presumably it’s the NIH funding that allows Cornell’s high-tech protozoa ranch to give away their vaping propaganda kits. It’s comforting to know that American tax dollars (or, if the CTP is involved, tobacco company user fees) are being spent to help kids kill single-celled animals with condensed vapor for science.
Whether this curriculum teaches kids anything of value is questionable. Presumably some of the students already realize that adding anything poisonous to an animal’s natural environment in a high enough dose will kill it. Those who don’t understand that now will figure it out eventually. But, hey, it’s not like the kids will realize they were lied to and stop trusting everything they’re told. Right?