Ladies and gentlemen, place your bets! This is what happens when you put a bunch of scientists together on the track. The petri dish track, that is:
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 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.