Culturing Life: How Cells Became Technologies

Hannah Landecker, Author . Harvard Univ. $35 (276p) ISBN 978-0-674-02328-4

Many of us back in our high school days peered through a microscope at cells jiggling around in a petri dish. But a mere century ago, scientists didn't know how to culture cells in a medium and believed that cells couldn't live outside their parent organism. As Landecker reminds us, today we can hardly live without cell cultures, which are used for everything from routine medical tests to genetic engineering. Landecker, a professor in the anthropology department at Rice University, focuses on five aspects of how cells have literally taken on a life of their own. Around 1900, scientists learned to observe cellular activity in the lab and then pursued the immortality of cell lines, a project that resulted in more than one notorious fiasco. Mass reproduction of cells was the obvious next step at mid-century and led to the polio vaccine. A widely distributed cell line (HeLa) derived from a Baltimore woman with cervical cancer made it possible for scientists to standardize their research, but also demonstrated how lines could grow out of control. Most recently, scientists learned in the late 20th century how to hybridize cells, mixing ingredients from various species. Landecker at times interprets to distraction—even minor aspects of her story are weighed for their significance—but she is a keen observer of scientific practice. (Feb.)

Reviewed on: 11/13/2006
Release date: 02/01/2007
Genre: Nonfiction
Ebook - 289 pages - 978-0-674-03990-2
Paperback - 276 pages - 978-0-674-03476-1
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