A cell culture is a way to grow and maintain cells outside of a body, usually within a cell incubator. In this process, plant or animal cells are removed from tissues, and with the proper nutrients and conditions, they will grow in specially designed containers. Researchers must compute the correct temperature, humidity, and how best to keep a cell culture free of contaminants in order to keep the culture living. Tissue and organ cultures are matter-of-fact science today, but the progress of cell cultures has been a long time coming. They first appeared in the mid-1950’s with animal cloning, which produced the first engineered tadpole.
Generally cell cultures are grown in glass—in vitro. Of course, growing a culture can start with a single cell, similar to growing a fungus or fostering a bacterium. The cells divide, change their size, and can continue to thrive until one of the needed elements is missing.
A cell culture batch typically contains cells of one kind, although two industries, food science and wastewater treatment, use mixed cultures. When cells are similar in structure and nature, it is said they are homogeneous—and since they come from a single parental cell, they are clones. Any variation in the genetics of the cell population is referred to as a heterogeneous population.
Scientists grow cells in cultures to help them understand the biochemistry of cells. Some other applications for cell cultures have been to examine metabolism, study the effect of drugs on cells, and figure out how to better kill cancer cells. Today it is possible to grow tissue cell cultures, aptly named “tissue engineering,” which can simulate artificial skin.
By experimenting with biologicals in large scale cell cultures, researchers can find out what virus or protein is needed for an animal's survival, or what is detrimental to animal propagation. The best reason to use a cell culture is the consistent nature of the sample. The drawback is that the cells mutate and become different from their parent group. Sometimes after a certain number of cell population doubling, cells undergo the process of senescence, or advanced aging. In this process, the cells stop dividing, the DNA breaks down, and they die.
The chance of finding a viable commercial application for cell cultures is not great. Researchers looking to find a medicinal plant product (bioprospecting), may find out that the search and discovery for a new drug can mean researching at least 10,000 different plants in thousands of cell culture batches.