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The Weird Red Concoction That Scientists Have Been Using to Study Cells

If you have come across a laboratory where they culture cells, you may find it curious why they store them in red bottles and what kind of stuff those red liquids contain. They might even look like mouthwash if you take just one glance at it. But these are the growth media or culture media that scientists use to study cells. It originated in 1959 with a man named Harry Eagle.

In 1959, an American physician named Harry Eagle mixed up one of the most pivotal cocktails in medical history—a red blend of sugar, salts, vitamins, and amino acids that allowed scientists to efficiently grow the cells of humans and other animals in laboratory beakers. This red elixir, known as Eagle’s minimal essential medium (EMEM), became a bedrock of biological research.
And in recent years, scientists have started realizing that such pared-down concoctions might be skewing their results, by warping the ways in which cells process nutrients. It’s as if they had spent decades studying the health of people who had only ever been given rations to eat.

Read more on the Atlantic.

(Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)


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Ah cell medium, a very fraught subject in biology. Two quick points that were not covered, or not covered very well in the article. First, the red color comes from a chemical, phenol red, that is used to monitor pH. If the solution gets too acidic it turns yellow, too basic and it turns purple. Although phenol red has been used forever, it is a slight estrogen mimic, which can alter how the cells work, especially if you are looking at estrogen receptors, but you can get EMEM and DMEM without phenol red.

Second, the article dosen't really talk about another important part of cell media, FBS or fetal bovine serum. This is added to the cell growth media to provide important hormones (like insulin) and other growth factors (which aren't completely understood) to the cells. This is an animal product which varies from batch to batch, and you can see how this causes issues in repeat-ability, as well as not being a human product for studying human cells.
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