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Culturing Life: How Cells Became Technologies.

Culturing Life: How Cells Became Technologies. By Hannah Landecker. 2007. Harvard University Press (ISBN 9780674034761). 276 pages. Paperback. $18.95.

Cell culture techniques have shaped the scope of biology since the start of the 20th century and are responsible for major advances in biomedicine. Hannah Landecker, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles, has written an engaging account of some of the major advances in cell culturing. The book is divided into a lengthy introduction, five chapters, and an epilogue. The introduction is the weakest point of the book, being not only long, but somewhat abstract for the layperson. The first chapter, entitled "Autonomy," covers major events that allowed cells to be manipulated outside the organism. It focuses on the work of Ross Harrison, who in 1907 demonstrated that cells could survive in vitro for several weeks. This event led to much excitement as well as disbelief within the scientific community, given its novelty. However, it pointed to the idea of finessing laboratory conditions to culture cells successfully - as defined by the author, "the practice of growing living cells outside the body in the laboratory" (p. 1).

Chapter 2, "Immortality," focuses on the work of Alexis Carrell, a physiologist at what is now Rockefeller University, who grew heart muscle tissue, which at the time had major appeal to scientists and the general public given its connotation of immortality. This chapter also looks at the techniques to produce permanent cell lines, which the author refers to as "a kind of operationalized philosophy of biological time" (p. 71). Chapter 3, "Mass Reproduction," focuses on mass production of cell lines to be circulated around the world. Chapter 4, "HeLa," includes not only an account of how the most famous permanent cell line was created but also how other technologies such as deep freezers improved culture storage. This chapter also delves into some other issues associated with culturing cells from an involuntary donor as well as the race and gender of Henrietta Lacks.

The notion of cell hybridization is tackled in chapter 5, "Hybridity," which addresses the outcome of fusing different cell types to produce a progeny with mixed characteristics (chimeral cell lines), what Landecker calls "conjunction of difference in the same biological space" (p. 216). At this time in history, cell culture became linked to some major shifts in biomedical research such as genetic reprogramming and developmental plasticity Finally, the short epilogue addresses several topics, such as cloning and in vitro fertilization.

While the book covers much historical territory, some readers may be disappointed by the lack of experimental detail. However, this is one of the strengths of the book, in that it makes such biological milestones available to a wider audience. Overall, the book is an invitation to reflect upon a set of techniques that revolutionized how biological science is done in the laboratory and how well we can understand living cells. It raises many philosophical questions about the meaning of "living" and the dimensions of space and plasticity that go along with such a notion. In reading this book I came to appreciate how technological advances, such as the development of cell culture techniques, lead us to consider more carefully the meaning of "biological."

Jose Vazquez

Liberal Studies Program

New York University

New York, NY 10003
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Author:Vazquez, Jose
Publication:The American Biology Teacher
Article Type:Book review
Date:Oct 1, 2010
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