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Day April 21, 2011

Teaching Thursday: Mean T Cells

Every Thursday, I plan to post an “explainer”, a short video or screencast that will explain some scientific concept. The first few of these will come from my teaching vaults. After a while, I’ll run out of videos and need to make new ones, but for now, I’ll go with what I have laying around.

This week’s Teaching Thursday video is a two-fer. My students have always struggled with understanding the immune system, and the interplay between its cells.

T-cytotoxic, T-helper, T-helper, T-regulator

Back in graduate school, my major advisor was probably one of the worst human beings on earth but one of the best teachers. (I have found that teaching ability is often inversely proportional to human kindness.) He would personalize brain cells. Each one had a personality, and a backstory, so that attending his class was like having a particularly lurid soap opera plot explained to you.

It was in this spirit that I created these videos.

What if we reimagined the cells of the immune system as boys (B cells) and girls (T cells)? B cells just spit out their antibodies and leave. T cells use specialized signaling chemicals called cytokines to coordinate the immune attack.

The movie “Mean Girls” is about the interplay between young women in a high school environment, which is a lot like the immune system. That’s the basic premise I started with. That gave me a chance to throw in some random facts about the immune system based on scenes in the movie.

There’s some other little tidbits in there that I had fun with. For example, there is evidence (reviewed in Sheril Kirshenbaum’s The Science of Kissing) that one of the functions of kissing is to compare the genetically determined cell surface proteins called “major histocompatibility complex proteins” or “human leukocyte antigens”. If the match is close, then you may be kissing your sister and you should stop. If there is no match, then you are may form a child with a stronger immune system that can attack a broader variety of invaders.

There are two movies:

The first is simply the trailer for “Mean Girls” narrated to explain what it means when re-explained as a story about the immune system.

Mean T Cells Trailer

The second is a little longer and consists of re-edited movie scenes with an explanation of an immune system concept accompanying each one.

Mean T Cells