Teaching Big Science Concepts with Tiny Protozoa

Tetrahymena thermophila: A live protozoa provides a hands-on approach to reinforce core biology principles in the class room

Presented by: Miguel F. Gonzales and Geoffrey M. Kapler, Ph.D., Texas A&M University

Fluorescent labeled T. thermophila cell. Nuclei (blue), centrin (red), and cilia (green). Image provided by Mayukh Guha from the University of Georgia.

The concept of a cell may be a difficult one for students to grasp, but the use of microscopic organisms can illustrate this concept in a visually compelling way. This workshop is tailored to provide middle school teachers with stimulating and enjoyable hands-on activities for teaching biology.

Tetrahymena thermopila is a fun, safe, and easy to work with protozoan. Through the use of the ASSET (Advancing Secondary Science Education through Tetrahymena) program developed at Cornell University, this workshop will explore self-contained biology teaching modules that stimulate critical thinking and foster a fundamental understanding of key biological concepts, using a hands-on, inquiry-based approach. Participants will be guided through detailed protocols for laboratory modules in which experiments are carried out using living cells.

These modules were developed to reinforce concepts in cell biology and expose students to an array of cellular responses using micropipettes and digital cameras mounted on simple microscopes. Every activity is formulated to positively enrich students in a classroom setting while engaging them in the experience of scientific inquiry.

Like other living things, tetrahymena has to locate food and avoid danger to survive. In this activity, a variety of common substances such as fruit and spices are used to assess the effect on the ciliary motility of T. thermophila. This exercise encompasses hypothesis driven thinking with visual cues to easily generate data and explore meaningful observations.

In this activity,T. thermophila are used to investigate the common features of ingestion, phagocytosis, and vacuole formation in cells. The activities explore internal and external structures that help organisms sense and survive in the environment. These processes are monitored using a digital camera exploring the effects of different types of foods and compounds on cellular activity. Digital image sequences illustrate the processes allowing for simple yet inquisitive observations to be made.

Microscopic Life Around Us
Antonie van Leeuwenhoek was one of the first scientists to visualize the microscopic world in the 17th century. A drop of rainwater unveiled the hidden microcosm of life once Antonie peered in by using one of his homemade microscopes. Now, we are familiar with the notion that microscopic life is teeming all around us, but students may still be confused by this concept. This field laboratory activity uses collected water and handheld microscopes to investigate the tiny inhabitants.

Each activity allows students to develop and confirm their own hypothesis. In this way, students partake in the scientific process while conducting exciting, thought provoking hands-on activities. Placing T. thermophila at the center stage, each activity explores fundamental biological principles such as natural

habitats, chemosensory stimulus, predation, and cellular biology.

Applying ASSET in the Classroom

Fluorescent labeled T. thermophila cell. Cilia (red) cilia related proteins (green). Image provided by Mayukh Guha from the University of Georgia.

Once trained with these modules, science educators may contact the ASSET program and request a complete set of equipment for the selected module to be delivered to the educator’s school at absolutely no cost. The lab equipment is then shipped back to ASEET from the school at no cost to the educator. The educator is also free to train other teachers to employ these modules in their classroom as well.

Each activity is tailored for the particular age group with appropriate goals to reinforce learning objectives in the classroom.

Miguel F. Gonzales

Miguel F. Gonzales received his B.S. in Biology from the University of Texas, Brownsville, where he did undergraduate research on bacterial pathogenesis with Dr. Daniele Provenzano. He is a doctoral student in Genetics at Texas A&M University. Miguel is a National Science Foundation - Graduate Research Fellowship Program Fellow. Miguel is doing his doctoral research in the lab of Dr. Geoffrey Kapler, where he is studying how the protein scaffold for chromosomes (histones) regulates DNA replication.

Geoffrey Kapler


Geoffrey Kapler is the Tom and Jean McMullin Professor of Genetics and Head of the Departmental of Molecular & Cellular Medicine at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine. He received his doctoral degree in Genetics from Harvard University and worked as a postdoctoral fellow with Nobel Laureate in Medicine, Elizabeth Blackburn, at the University of California, San Francisco. He joined the Texas A&M faculty in 1993, where he heads a research team investigating DNA replication in the model eukaryote, Tetrahymena thermophila.