It’s not much to look at under an electron microscope: Tetrahymena thermopila is a simple, single-celled organism covered with hair-like appendages called “cilia.” But the study of this humble form of life is leading to important insights in fields as divergent as medicine and environmental science.
“These organisms are good models for mammalian biology,” explains Dr. Ronald Pearlman of York University, who has been exploring the secrets of Tetrahymena for years. They’re much easier than human cells to grow and manipulate, but they have similar components.
Key among those components are the cilia. In humans, cilia perform functions as diverse as providing connections in the nerve cells in our eyes and keeping dust from entering the lungs. And problems with cilia can lead to diseases of the lungs, kidneys and neural system.
Dr. Pearlman and his colleagues are studying Tetrahymena—and other single-cell organisms—using the advanced tools of York’s Core Molecular Biology and DNA Sequencing Facility, a lab funded in part by an investment from the Ontario Innovation Trust. Employing state-of-the-art techniques such as mass spectrometry, Dr. Pearlman has isolated and identified many of the key proteins in the cilia of Tetrahymena thermopila. The next step is to determine what role these proteins plays in how cilia develop and function. This is scientific research at a very fundamental level, but Dr. Pearlman’s work is helping to lay the foundations for potential treatments of cilia-related illnesses.