What is a Cell Culture?

Andrea Campbell

A cell culture is a way to grow and maintain cells outside of a body, usually within a cell incubator. In this process, plant or animal cells are removed from tissues, and with the proper nutrients and conditions, they will grow in specially designed containers. Researchers must compute the correct temperature, humidity, and how best to keep a cell culture free of contaminants in order to keep the culture living. Tissue and organ cultures are matter-of-fact science today, but the progress of cell cultures has been a long time coming. They first appeared in the mid-1950’s with animal cloning, which produced the first engineered tadpole.

A scientist grows cells in a culture.
A scientist grows cells in a culture.

Generally cell cultures are grown in glass—in vitro. Of course, growing a culture can start with a single cell, similar to growing a fungus or fostering a bacterium. The cells divide, change their size, and can continue to thrive until one of the needed elements is missing.

Cell cultures are used to examine metabolism, study the effect of drugs on cells, and figure out how to better kill cancer cells.
Cell cultures are used to examine metabolism, study the effect of drugs on cells, and figure out how to better kill cancer cells.

A cell culture batch typically contains cells of one kind, although two industries, food science and wastewater treatment, use mixed cultures. When cells are similar in structure and nature, it is said they are homogeneous—and since they come from a single parental cell, they are clones. Any variation in the genetics of the cell population is referred to as a heterogeneous population.

Scientists grow cells in cultures to help them understand the biochemistry of cells. Some other applications for cell cultures have been to examine metabolism, study the effect of drugs on cells, and figure out how to better kill cancer cells. Today it is possible to grow tissue cell cultures, aptly named “tissue engineering,” which can simulate artificial skin.

By experimenting with biologicals in large scale cell cultures, researchers can find out what virus or protein is needed for an animal's survival, or what is detrimental to animal propagation. The best reason to use a cell culture is the consistent nature of the sample. The drawback is that the cells mutate and become different from their parent group. Sometimes after a certain number of cell population doubling, cells undergo the process of senescence, or advanced aging. In this process, the cells stop dividing, the DNA breaks down, and they die.

The chance of finding a viable commercial application for cell cultures is not great. Researchers looking to find a medicinal plant product (bioprospecting), may find out that the search and discovery for a new drug can mean researching at least 10,000 different plants in thousands of cell culture batches.

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Discussion Comments


@umbra21 - If you think that is strange, consider this. When the article mentions human tissue cell cultures they are almost certainly talking about HeLa cells.

HeLa cells come from a tissue sample taken from the tumor of a woman (Henrietta Lacks) in the 1960's, which have been growing without pause ever since.

Almost every example of human tissue grown in a lab comes from her original sample. The woman herself died decades ago, but her cells live on and are used to test huge amounts of drugs and chemicals.

I think that is one of the most bizarre things I've ever heard. What's sad about it is that she never knew about it, and her descendants have never had any kind of compensation, and for the most part live in poverty.


I've heard that PETA, a group that is against unethical treatment of animals, has offered several hundred thousand dollars to a person who can manage to make a chicken substitute that people can't distinguish from chicken. One way that has been suggested is by growing chicken meat cell cultures.

The whole thing is a little bit ridiculous I think. Not the goal, but the amount they would give the "winner". As it says in the article, it is a long hard process to develop this kind of thing, and it would take millions of dollars to even attempt it, let along succeed.

On the other hand, if a person could figure out how to do this in a cost effective way, they would make more money with a patent on the process than from winning an award.

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