My cells workout at the gym

Since 2016 is ginormous for my PhD thesis, I decided to restart blogging with a post about my research work and PhD thesis.

I do research on cells. It is part of my activities that I like the most. I really, really like working on cell lines.

Undoubtedly, cell culture is one of my favorite things to do. And I am not alone, many of my colleagues confirmed that they also love working with cells.

It is (lets say!) simple, after a while it is a no-brainer (and oh! How the brain enjoys breaks while working in research!) and you get to have a connection with those tiny, beautiful things that are so amiable and grow nicely and quietly. Right? Who can confirm? Cells are the best!

One friend was telling me that she sometimes talks to the cells. Another one – I caught him in action! – was singing lullabies in the cell culture lab. A colleague was complaining that her lab is crowded and she is always worried that her cells might get contaminated. She felt protective.

So, how does it look like to make a cell culture?

I often try to describe this to my family and friends and the best comparison that comes to my mind is plant culture.

For your plants, you need:

  • Seeds/ a plant 
  • Soil and water for nutrition (and maybe some additional supplements)
  • Light & air 
  • A certain temperature (Do you have plants that you keep inside? Can’t imagine a palm tree outside in the cold winter in Romania!)
  • Care. Yes, you care for your plants! You admire them when they flower/ fruit/ thrive. Even the cactus lovers out there who say they like cactus because it doesn’t need to be wet, I know you care for your cactus! (I even know a case of cactus drowning out of too much care!)

For cells, it is pretty much the same. We need:

  • A cell. Yes, one! (ideally several millions, but one would- theoretically- be enough) Cells can be collected from living tissues and put in culture. Many of the cells used in research are cancer cells since they will replicate naturally.
  • Special pots
  • Nutrients: cell culture medium
  • Controlled temperature & atmosphere 
  • Sterile environment. These babies are fragile!
  • Care. Your schedule will never be the same with at least three days booked to assist your cells and make sure they are happy.

It looks like this:

cell culture flask 2

You can’t really see the cells with just the eyes. We use microscopes to see the cells. Such a pleasure to see that they’ve grown well!

My cells look like this:

mdckii cells

Kind of boring…

Look at these beauties:


Why do we work on cells?

  • They are a simple model for complex biological systems. For example, the study of cancer, new treatment candidates, analyzing disease pathways, etc, requires the use of cells for in vitro studies.
  • Another thing that fascinates me about cell lines is that they are immortal! You can, in theory, use them forever. Immortal doesn’t mean that a cell doesn’t die. It means that they can be multiplied to infinite.  Cells have millions of babies.
  • They are cost-effective. You can do lots of experiments using the same cells and in-depth analyses are more accessible.

Of course there are also disadvantages:

  • They are sensitive. All the conditions you have to respect to have your cells in culture can become tiresome at times.
  • Immortality is somehow a myth. After a while, your cells will transform. You will be studying something new, not necessarily what you meant to.
  • Cell models are too simple sometimes. Yes, too simple. So, you might have to consider more complex in vitro models or to go in vivo.

And while I love cell culture, it can be tricky sometimes. In a future post, I will tell you about my recent adventures with my cells.

Share your experience

Would you like to work on cells? Do you already work on cells? What is your favorite game? Why do you prefer cells over other experimental models? Did you ever have problems and needed troubleshooting?

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