By Hannah Landecker
Tissue culture, the technique of growing living cells outside the body, is one of those procedures basic to the biomedical sciences that cease to be noticed because they are so ubiquitous. Few scientists ask themselves, pipette hovering over Petri dish, “When did we start working on cells instead of whole organisms? How did anyone first realize that cells could live outside the complex bodies they originally came from? Where did this technology come from? What role has it played in our knowledge of cells, bodies, and disease? What would the life sciences look like, without tissue culture?” Although these questions may occur rarely to the scientists who depend on these techniques every day, much less to the larger public, tissue culture is an essential part of the infrastructure of biomedicine.
Consider its origins, when cells first came to live in laboratories. At Yale in 1907, embryologist Ross Harrison first grew a fragment of embryonic frog tissue in a drop of lymph fluid. The drop hung from a cover slip, over a hollow slide, so the tissue was enclosed in glass (in vitro) and could be watched under the microscope. Did nerve fibers grow out continuously from a single cell, or did they result from many cells merging in a line? Debate on this issue had raged for years. Because scientists couldn’t see growth inside the body, no resolution was possible. By watching the isolated process over time, Harrison decisively proved the nerve fiber originated from a single cell; concurrently, he showed what he called the “autonomous powers” of cells, if kept in aseptic conditions at the right temperature, to live outside the body.
Seizing on Harrison’s finding, Alexis Carrel at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research introduced the idea of continuous culture—not just maintaining a living fragment of tissue for weeks but growing it eternally by using fragments of the culture to make new cultures ad infinitum. The scientist never need go back to the animal body, he reasoned, if only the method could be improved to keep cells alive forever. He introduced the idea of “permanent life”—or immortality—to cell culture.
It wasn’t easy for scientists to give up the idea of the integrity of the organism as a whole. In France in 1910, Justin Jolly declared it an “abuse of language” to call these continuously living cultures. Albert Oppel, who later wrote one of the first tissue culture manuals, initially took it to be a “fairy tale” that cells could live in this way. After getting over the shock, he and others grasped the experimental potential of having cells live in a glass enclosure where they were isolated and visible. One early tissue culturist concluded that they had discovered “a new type of body in which to grow a cell.”
Indeed, the history of cell biology could be told as just this story: how we have built transparent bodies for living cells, so that they can be manipulated and watched as they live and change. UTMB has had a place in this history: in the 1950s, Charles M. Pomerat of the seminal Tissue Culture Laboratory here developed many techniques for not just watching cells in culture but making time-lapse micro-cinematographic films of them. Continuing the trajectory started by Harrison, Pomerat concentrated on nerve cells, and his beautiful films traveled around the world.
Today, at UTMB and elsewhere, many scientists take the “autonomous powers” of cells to grow outside the body as a given, pushing cells to do and be new things in vitro, as research into cell membrane proteins, stem cells, tissue engineering, and other new forms of cellular life continues apace.
Hannah Landecker, an assistant professor of anthropology at Rice University, is a visiting scholar at UTMB’s Institute for the Medical Humanities and author of the forthcoming book, Technologies of Living Substance: Cells and Biotechnology, 1900 to Now. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.