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The Friday Evening Lecture last week, “The Human Parasite Trichomonas vaginalis: One Cell, Multiple Revelations,” by Patricia Johnson of UCLA covered some delicate territory but tantalized us with several fascinating stories. We were told about a fastidious protozoan that infects only humans and is transmitted only by sex. Its primary habitat is the vagina, from which it gets its name. The creature survives by sucking food out of cells like a leech. It has to be considered quite successful because it infects over 300 million people worldwide and is the most common infectious protozoan.

An audience member wanted to know, “What did the creature live in before there were humans?” Good question. And what about bonobos, our closest living primates? Why don’t they get infected? Another good question. But perhaps the most amazing revelation of the evening was hearing about their fuel cells. They have a curious little structure that makes hydrogen. It is not known why they make it but if we knew how to make it as well and cheaply as they do, it could transform our energy economy. Burning hydrogen is non-polluting as it produces only water as a product. An abundant source of hydrogen could replace coal, oil and natural gas, thus eliminating carbon dioxide emissions. So, the multiple revelations of this one cell give us multiple reasons to try and discover the tricks of Trichomonas.

Trichomonas vaginalis. Photo by Guy Brugerolie, courtesy of micro*scope

Trichomonas vaginalis. Photo by Guy Brugerolie, courtesy of micro*scope