When biologists from all over the world gathered in Denver, Colorado on December 3rd to attend the 2011 American Society For Cell Biology Conference, the air was tingling with excitement. However, it was not because of a radical scientific breakthrough but, the anticipation of an historical event - The announcement of the results of the world's first ever human cell race!
Organized by three French researchers the event, which entailed shipping frozen cell lines to designated testing laboratories in Boston, London, Heidelberg, Paris, San Francisco or Singapore, attracted over 70 entries from 50 laboratories across the world.
Once the samples were received, scientists thawed the cells and placed them in petrie dishes that were fitted with 400 micron (0.4mm) long 'race tracks' - each coated with a special substance to provide the cells with some traction. The races, if one can indeed call them that, were recorded by 24-hour digital cameras. The scientists did not time just one cell from each cell type, but 200 of them - The individual cell that reached the end of its track the fastest, was declared the winner.
In first place was a bone marrow stem cell submitted by the University of Singapore, that whizzed across the track at the amazing speed of 5.2 microns per minute - or 0.000000312 kilometers per hour. The second (3.2 microns per minute) and third (2.7 microns per minute) places were both won by breast cells submitted by France's Odile Filhol-Cochet of IRTSV - The only difference between the two was that one was tweaked to reflect the pattern in cancerous cells. As with all athletes, the winning cells had a strategy - Unlike some of the other contestants, they did not go back and forth, but simply marched ahead in one direction! Each of the winners took home Nikon digital cameras and more importantly - World Cell Race medals.
Though fun, the race did have a serious purpose to it. The scientists were trying to monitor how different cell types migrate when placed under the same conditions, something that will help in researching cancer and other diseases. The success of this inaugural race has led the organizers to think up of more challenging competitions - like swimming and even, weight lifting! Who knew biology could be this much fun!