What's in a dish - food for cells and thought

“An apple a day keeps the doctor away” – just on of the many phrases reminding us that having a balanced diet is good for our health. And just like our whole body stays healthy from a variety of food, the individual cells of our body need a variety of things to stay healthy as well. When cells are cultured ”in vitro” or in a dish in the lab they have to be fed to stay alive. This is usually done with a purely liquid diet consisting of so called ”medium” (no well-done fans there). Cells are kept in this liquid during the course of their culture, with the medium being ”refreshed” every once in a while, showing that cells are more prone to just skip dinner and go straight for drinks.

Coming back to what cells actually need to prosper, the answer for that has been found several times with varying results. There are dozens of different medium compositions, with one famous one for example being “Dulbecco’s modified eagle medium” (DMEM). This specific medium consists in even its most basic version of about 30 different components.

It's called cell dish for a reason (although this one is a well plate) - hungry cells topped off with their favorite medium

So what specifically are these components? For cells to survive a few basic parameters have to be met. Besides a natural temperature (around 37 degrees celsius, like our body) and a neutral ph value around 7, the liquid also needs to have a specific osmolarity (e.g. salt content) to keep the cells happy and neither salted and dried like beef jerky or soggy and bloated like pasta left in the pot for too long. Cells also need pretty much more of what they are already made out of. This includes the natural building blocks for proteins and membranes, like amino acids and lipids. And since all of this staying alive is pretty exhausting for the cells, they crave some form of energy to keep their metabolism running, like sugars for example. To round all this of essential vitamins are needed, which is just as truefor cells as it is for us. Usually to all of this some antibiotics are added, since unlike the whole body, cell culture can not boast with an immune system able to fight off unwelcome intruders.

A layer of differntiated heart cells rolling up in the dish

All of these are just the basics, keeping the cells alive. Things quickly get more complicated though, when you take into account that the human body has about 200 cell types and you have definitely not tried to get 200 people to agree on the same favorite drink. As cells need different factors to keep their natural functionality the composition of the medium has to change as well. This can for example mean the inclusion of different hormones (like for example insulin) or even a change in the very basics of the medium (with for example adult heart cells not even needing glucose for their metabolism but fatty acids). Things get especially extra when several cell types have to be kept in one culture and choices have to be made which one of them is the pickiest eater (or drinker). But more on that when I get to mixing and matching these guys in my project.

The avid reader of my blog, might have noticed so far that the topic of food has been a recurring theme. And with even the topic of pancakes being central to the last post i thought this little crepe (cannoli, or Bánh xèo) of differentiated heart cells tissue might just fit right in.

If I got you interested in knowing more about atrial cardiomyocytes, check out the official Twitter and LinkedIn PersonalizeAF, as well as the hashtag #PersonalizeAF, to learn more about atrial fibrillation and how research is done towards curing it.

Catch you on the next post, the cells are in need of a refill.

Thomas Hutschalik