Life Itself: Exploring the Realm of the Living Cell

Life Itself: Exploring the Realm of the Living Cell

Life Itself: Exploring the Realm of the Living Cell

Life Itself: Exploring the Realm of the Living Cell


Hidden in a nondescript red-brick building in Rockville, Maryland, is the most unusual warehouse in the world, a bank of living cells called the American Type Culture Collection. Here, at 321 degrees below zero--a temperature at which life abandons its vital dance and enters limbo, but without dying--are some 30,000 vials holding 60 billion living forms in suspended animation, including mouse kidney cells, turkey blood cells, armadillo spleen cells, and some 40 billion human cells. These cultured cells are essential to modern biological research--in fact, cells today are the most intimately studied life forms in all of science, for both practical and philosophical reasons. For one, all disease--from cancer and the common cold, to arthritis and AIDS--stems from cells gone awry. And cell research not only promises a cure for a wide variety of disease--it also holds the key to the mystery of life itself. In Life Itself, Boyce Rensberger, science writer for The Washington Post, takes readers to the frontlines of cell research with some of the brightest investigators in molecular, cellular, and developmental biology. Virtually all the hottest topics in biomedical research are covered here, such as how do cells and their minute components move? How do the body's cells heal wounds? What is cancer? Why do cells die? And what is the nature of life? Readers discover that--contrary to what we may have concluded from pictures in our high school textbooks--cells teem with activity and that, inside, they "are more crowded with components than the inside of a computer." We learn that scientists now know of at least ten molecular motors that move things about inside the cell--in most cells, this motion is short because the cell is tiny, but in the single-celled nerve fibers that run from the base of the spinal cord to the toes (measuring three or four feet in an adult human), molecular motors can take several days to make the trip. Rensberger describes the many fascinating kinds of cells found in the body, from "neural crest cells" (early in embryonic development, these cells crawl all over the embryo to the sites where they will pursue their fate--as nerve cells, or cartilage, or skin), to "dust cells" (nomadic cells in the lung that swallow and store indigestible particles, then migrate to the gullet where they themselves are swallowed and digested), to "natural killer cells" (millions of which roam the body looking for cancerous cells). We meet many of the scientists who have pioneered cell research, such as Rita Levi-Montalcini--an Italian who, shut out of her lab during World War II, continued to experiment in her bedroom at home, making the discovery ("nerve growth factor") for which she won the Nobel Prize--and American Leonard Hayflick, who proved that all human cells (except cancer cells) invariably die after about fifty divisions. Rensberger also provides an illuminating discussion of AIDS--revealing exactly why this virus is so difficult to defeat--and of cancer, explaining that before cancer can start, a whole series of rare events must occur, events so unlikely that it seems a wonder that anyone gets cancer at all. The solutions to the most pressing challenges facing scientists today--from the efforts to conquer disease to the quest to understand life itself--will be found in the innermost workings of the cell. In Life Itself, Boyce Rensberger paints a colorful and fascinating portrait of modern research in this vital area, an account which will enthrall anyone interested in state-of-the-art science or the incredible workings of the human body.


Clouds of cold fog billow up through a circular hatch in the top of a stainless steel tank as Rob Hay pulls out the lid and its one-foot thickness of styrofoam insulation. As the fog rolls down to the floor, Hay peers into the dark tank, where the temperature is always 321 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

It is kept so cold because that is a temperature at which life, normally warm and pulsing with activity, abandons its vital dance and enters limbo -- but without dying.

Inside Rob Hay's stainless steel tank are about 60 billion life-forms gathered from all over the planet. They wait in chilly repose. They neither eat nor sleep. They do not breathe. Not even the simplest chemical reactions of metabolism take place inside their bodies. By any conventional definition of life, the creatures have surrendered their claim on it.

And yet by those definitions, anyone can work a miracle: Simply reach into the tank and take out one of the 30,000 hermetically sealed glass vials, or ampoules, each about an inch long and each holding about two million of the inanimate creatures in less than a teaspoonful of frozen fluid. Now let it warm to body temperature. From their icy limbo, the tiny creatures will undergo resurrection in minutes. They will, in the language of an age that could not have imagined what is routine in almost every biomedical laboratory today, "come back to life." Some of the little organisms begin moving around, crawling over the inside surface of their container. They will begin feeding on the nutrients dissolved in the now-melted liquid that surrounds them. And -- the surest proof that they are truly alive -- the creatures will begin reproducing.

The organisms in the ampoules are cells -- the fundamental units of life, the microscopic building blocks of which all living organisms are made. They have been removed from the bodies of thousands of different animals of nearly a hundred species. In some of the frozen ampoules are kidney cells from a mouse. In others are skin cells from a chimpanzee. There are turkey blood cells, armadillo spleen cells, iguana heart cells -- dozens of different kinds of cells from scores of different species. And, of . . .

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