Students at Bethlehem Central High School in Delmar were testing the effects of e-cigarette vapor and unsmoked vape liquid on Tetrahymena, single-cell organisms found in pond water.
“It’s like looking at a battlefield,” 9th grader Ronan Tiu said. “Everything’s dead.”
Similar in composition to human lung cells, Tetrahymena are covered with hair-like structures called cilia that help the cell move around and filter out pollutants and other matter.
The education module, developed by Cornell University and designed to help teens learn about the dangers of vaping, is being utilized in schools throughout the state, according to Cornell research scientist Donna Cassidy-Hanley.
“Healthy, happy Tetrahymena are always in motion,” Cassidy-Hanley said. “They swim – zip, zap, zop – without any direction that humans can discern. When you add the vapor, the cells become disorientated and slow down, and then eventually they drop to the bottom of the container and they die.”
Cornell University’s Tetrahymena Stock Center (TSC), a repository and distribution site for various Tetrahymena strains, has also created lab kits for high schoolers to test the effects of cigarette smoke and alcohol on Tetrahymena.
Vaping has surged in recent years, particularly among teens, despite efforts to curb the epidemic. Recent data from the Center for Disease Control suggests that more than 1-in-4 teens in the U.S. use e-cigarettes, which come in flavors with names like Cherry Crush and Blue Raspberry. A mysterious outbreak of lung disease that the CDC says has killed 60 vape users nationwide since last year has prompted a push by state and local officials to ban flavored vape products.
The vaping lab activity introduces students to what is currently known about the possible harmful effects of vaping, including ingredients commonly found in vape juice and the potential dangers of second-hand vapor while raising questions that still need to be answered.
O’Reilly said that seeing the impact of vapor first-hand sparked a conversation about how vape products are targeted toward teens.
“People who die from cigarettes each year could fill three jumbo jets,” O’Reilly said, “and yet the tobacco industry is still running strong. That kind of blew people away … the idea that we’ve created a whole other industry to get people addicted was a side topic that came up.”
Students marked down observations about the impact of vape fluids on cell viability, motility, and overall shape over time. They found that Tetrahymena exposed to the chemicals that had been concentrated in a vapor died slightly faster than those exposed to the unsmoked vape juice. Ninth-grader Sasha Levin said the vapor-exposed cells “shriveled to the point of no longer being Tetrahymena.”
“It’s kind of the same problem with tobacco,” she said. “It’s just a matter of time until we realize the harm.”