A little cell goes a long way

There are two kinds of cells in the universe: prokaryotic cells, found in bacteria, and eukaryotic cells, found in most other forms of life. Tetrahymena thermophila is one example of a single-celled eukaryotic organism – a member of a group of organisms called “ciliated protozoa” that actually makes up a greater part of the biosphere than humans.

“In addition to being a very important member of the biosphere,” explains Professor Ronald Pearlman, Department of Biology at York, “this organism may also play a significant role in helping us better understand many serious diseases.”

Right: Ronald Pearlman

Single-celled and easy to grow and manipulate, Tetrahymena thermophila has caught the attention of researchers like Pearlman for the simple reason that it possesses a biology similar to that of the typical mammalian cell – without being nearly as complicated. As a result, this organism has provided Pearlman with a useful model for explaining the behaviour of mammalian organisms, which include humans. Processes that occur during the development of the organism, for example, reflect processes that occur in the mammalian immune system.

“By studying this single-celled life form,” notes Pearlman, “we can learn a lot about other, more complex forms of life.”

In addition, Pearlman’s study of the cilia (the hairlike vibrating structures that provides both the organism and some of our own human cells with locomotion) may offer insights into diseases related to the kidney and nervous systems – diseases that can result from defects in the cilia.

Left: An electron micrograph of Tetrahymena thermophila

Pearlman is also director of the York Core Molecular Biology Facility, a laboratory that provides extensive service to the academic, biomedical and biotechnology communities for DNA sequencing and proteomics throughout Canada and the United States. Among its many accomplishments, Pearlman’s lab has developed and patented an in vivo screen for drugs targeting an essential enzyme involved in nucleotide and DNA metabolism that will be valuable in anti-fungal, anti-viral and anti-cancer therapeutics.

Assisted by York’s Michael Siu, professor of chemistry and director of the Centre for Research in Mass Spectrometry, Pearlman’s work demonstrates the collaborative nature of York research and its commitment to addressing serious health-related questions.

The above article was submitted to YFile by Jason Guriel, York’s Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada SPARK student (Students Promoting Awareness of Research Knowledge). Guriel, a second-year graduate student in English, will be writing stories on York NSERC-funded researchers throughout the academic year.

SPARK is a program that was launched in 1999 at 10 universities across Canada. Through the program, students with an aptitude for communications are recruited, trained and paid to write stories based on the NSERC-supported research at participating universities. Information on the NSERC and the Spark Student program is available by logging on to York’s NSERC Research site here