Skin Culture

Interested in growing skin? You are not alone. Interested in artificially growing human tissue? Then you are in the right place!

Hey, no questions asked-it is at least as much fun as having a pet hamster or a virtual kitten screen saver. The following article is the first installment in a series that will show you how to grow your own skin culture and suggest some very cool projects you can do with it.

A brief history of tissue cult(ure)

Ross Harrison is generally accepted as the founder of the technique of tissue culture. In 1907, he adapted the 'hanging-drop' method previously used by bacteriologists to culture bacteria, using it to grow a nerve cell from embryonic frog tissue. Alexis Carrel and Montrose Burrows soon modified Harrison's technique and used it to grow adult mammalian tissue and malignant tissue in vitro. The discovery of tissue culture did not lead inevitably to its widespread adoption by research scientists-tissue culture did not begin to proliferate as a research tool until after World War II. When Julian Huxley, an eminent biologist and vocal proponent of biological engineering, published 'The Tissue-Culture King: A Parable of Modern Science' in the Yale Review in 1926, tissue culture still seemed fantastic, having not yet been assimilated into the mundanity of bench science. In Huxley's cautionary tale of biotech falling into the 'wrong' hands, an African tribe employs a British scientist to produce cell cultures in the service of the tribal king, with monstrous repercussions. Huxley describes tissue culture as 'a technique of great power' and lends the tissue an aura of religious significance. Sven Gard also invokes the sanctity of tissue culture in his presentation speech for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1954: 'Tissue culture developed almost into a tissue cult, a mystery the secret rites of which were revealed only to a narrow circle of inaugurates with [Alexis] Carrel as their high priest.'





The American Tissue Culture Association was founded at a conference in Hershey, Pennsylvania in 1947. Two years later, Dr. G.W. Hyatt created the US Navy Tissue Bank to store bone tissue collected during orthopedic surgery. Over the course of the next decade, the tissue bank expanded to become a full-scale human tissue facility, the first of its kind. By the 1950s, tissue culture had been transformed into a tool for biological investigation and was a functional unit of analysis for diverse research experiments. In 1951, the first human tumor cell line, 'HeLa' was established from the cancerous cervical cells of Henrietta Lacks. The HeLa cell line continues to flourish today, and is one of the most commonly used cell lines in biological research. Leonard Hayflick, a microbiologist at Stanford University, created the first normal human diploid cell line in 1962. When he began to market his cell line to other scientists, the NIH claimed that the cells were the property of the federal government, since Hayflick had been conducting his research under a federal grant when he developed the cell line. Hayflick brought suit against the U.S. government, and reached an out-of-court settlement with the NIH in 1981 whereby Hayflick was recognized as the owner of both the cell line and all proceeds from sale of the cell line. The Hayflick settlement effectively established biotechnology as a federally funded, privatized industry.

By mid-century, mass production techniques and standardized nutrient media began to emerge, and the use of penicillin helped tissue to survive longer in vitro. A series of legal cases in the 1980s and 90s privatized and commercialized human tissue. While at General Electric, Ananda Chakrabarty genetically engineered a strain of bacteria that could digest crude oil. When the patent application for his invention was rejected, Chakrabarty brought his case before the Supreme Court. In 1980, the Supreme Court sided with Chakrabarty, creating a precedent for the proprietary protection of genetically engineered biological materials, including whole organisms. In 1990, the California Supreme Court ruled that John Moore, a leukemia patient, did not have ownership rights to a cell line that his physician had created (without Moore's knowledge or consent) using tissue from Moore's spleen. In 1993, the US Secretary of Commerce filed a patent application for the immortal cell line of a young Panamanian Guaymi woman whose cells were believed to have antiviral properties. When the Guaymi tribe and several activist organizations voiced their opposition, the US government quickly dropped the application. Nonetheless, the US government has filed several new patent applications for the biological materials of indigenous peoples within the last decade.


Just as the current technique of tissue culture bears little resemblance to Harrison's initial experiments with frog neurons, the status of tissue culture outside of the lab evolved dramatically over the course of the twentieth century. Cellular material is transformed in several fundamental ways by growing and reproducing outside of the body. Scientists who culture cells decontextualize tissue both materially and rhetorically: in order to visualize dynamic processes which naturally occur within the body, these very processes must be removed from the body. Because tissue culture was developed as a technique for overcoming the obstacles which the body poses to scientific experimentation, it is often described in terms which are diametrically opposed to any classical definition of the body: where the body is whole, tissue culture is fragmented; where the body is opaque, tissue culture is transparent; while the lifespan of any body is finite, cell lines can be 'immortalized'. Since tissue culture was invented in 1907, tissue has been progressively redefined as exchange good, intellectual property, and commercial product.

The bulk of tissue culture experimentation undoubtedly takes place in the service of the biotechnological industry. While there are a few tissue culturing kits that biological supply companies sell to high schools and universities for use in advanced biology curricula, the biotechnological experiments performed at the high school and undergraduate level are carefully scripted and allow for a minimum of creativity. There is nothing particularly exciting about amplifying fruit fly DNA using PCR, isolating the DNA of an onion, or DNA fingerprinting. Rather than allowing students to cultivate a creative experimental approach to the manipulation of living materials, educational biotech kits teach students the skills they will need to become docile lab technicians. This, of course, is no surprise. At a very early age, our mothers admonished us not to play with our food. If we are conditioned to believe that we should not play with the food on our plate, what chance is there of trying to play with the tissue on our Petri dish?

Biotech Hobbyist Starter Skin Kit
It is time to wrest tissue culture from the privileged hegemony of the lab and relocate it to your kitchen. The recipe for cultivating tissue culture is simple, but just like a Tamagotchi it takes a bit of tending. The game is to see how long you can keep your culture alive. In order to grow skin you need three essential ingredients:
1. A Cell Line (preferably immortal)
o Cambrex--Human endothelial cells
o American Type Culture Collection-cell line catalog
2. Growth Medium
o Cambrex--Endothelial cell medium
o Clonetics--Endothelial cell medium
3. A Body Temperature Growth Environment
o Economy Incubator--$325.85
o KwikCulture Incubator--$80.00
o Brinsea Avian Incubator--$93.50
o Hova-Bator Incubator--$59.50
o Incubators Value Line
o often has cheap used incubators for sale

The Biotech Hobbyist SK-A1 Starter Skin kit includes a cell line and growth medium (and lots of other good stuff too), but the last item is up to you. You have a few options: you can keep the culture on you-your body is (not-so-) coincidentally the perfect temperature for growing human tissue. There are also a few home incubator kits that you can use. One kit adapts the waste heat from the back of your refrigerator, another repurposes your oven. At pet supply stores you can buy a whole range of inexpensive precision control incubators, brooders, hatcheries and other heating elements designed to keep living things warm.







What to do with your living skin?
What to do? There are endless things to do with skin-do you want to make it glow in the dark? Do you want it to talk directly to your computer by interfacing it with silicon? Of course you do! The next project installments will explain how to splice in an amplified Great Star coral gene that will make your tissue glow cyan under UV light.