Posted on behalf of Monya Baker
In a tongue-in-cheek contest of microscopic mobility, a line of bone marrow stem cells from Singapore beat out dozens of competitors to claim the title of the world’s fastest crawling cells. They whizzed across a petri dish at the breakneck speed of 5.2 microns per minute — or 0.000000312 kilometers per hour.
Results of the World Cell Race were announced on 3 December at the annual meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology in Denver, Colorado. Organizers declared the competition a success: “50 participating labs all over the world! 70 cells lines recorded! without a single dollar to fund the project!” says Manuel Théry from Institut de Recherche en Technologies et Sciences pour le Vivant (iRTSV) in Grenoble, France.
Behind the fun is a serious goal: looking broadly at how cells move. Ultimately, cell migration lets embryos and organs develop and allows to cancer spread. The contest provides the first reference for many cell types migrating under the same conditions, and is already leading to some interesting comparisons, says Théry. For example, stem cells and cancer cells seem to be faster than their mature and healthy counterparts.
Rather than actually racing cells at a scientific conference, teams shipped frozen cells to designated laboratories in Boston, London, Heidelberg, Paris, San Francisco, and Singapore. Thawed cells were placed in wells containing “race tracks”. Each track was 400 microns (0.4 mm) long and coated with a substance that gives cells some traction. Digital cameras recorded cells for 24 hours to determine the fastest run down the track for each cell line. In total, about 200 cells of each cell type were timed to see how long it took the fastest individual cell of each type to reach the end of its track.
The key to victory? Avoid changing direction, says Théry, who co-organized the race with colleagues from Institut Curie in Paris. Cells that went back and forth along the track took longer to finish
Coming in after the first-place fetal mesenchymal bone marrow cells from Yuchun Liu at the University of Singapore were two cell lines submitted by Odile Filhol-Cochet of iRTSV in France. Second place went to a line of unaltered breast epithelial cells, with third going to the same cell type tweaked to reflect cell-signaling patterns observed in cancerous cells; they clocked 3.2 and 2.7 microns per minute respectively. Finishing fourth, at an average speed of 2.5 microns per minute, were cultured human skin cells derived from patients with a rare genetic skin disorder. These were submitted by Rumena Begum of King’s College London. The winners received Nikon digital cameras and World Cell Race medals.
Ultimately, the World Cell Race may just be one of several cell contests, says Théry. Other competitions—for cellular prowess in swimming and weightlifting—are being considered. Perhaps a full scale Cyto-lympics is just a matter of time.
UPDATE: During the award ceremony, organizers also introduced a new prize: the tortoise award. This is the cell type that moves most persistently without changing directions. That went to a line of modified mouse embryonic fibroblasts submitted by Harini Krishnan at University of Medicine & Dentistry of New Jersey at Stratford. Her prize is $1000 of products for cellular analysis and high-content cell screening from French company CYTOO.
CLARIFICATION: Only cells that ‘crawl’ rather than ‘swim’ were raced. Most sperm cells, for example, would move faster than the cells raced here.