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Escaping flatland

2:40pm, December 11, 2007

From Washington, D.C., at a meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology

Nothing is more iconic of biological research than the petri dish. Yet the idea that growing cells in a flat dish can sometimes lead scientists astray is gaining traction.

As an alternative, some researchers are experimenting on cells grown in gelatinous materials made from many of the same structural proteins that fill the spaces between cells in the body. The nutritive materials allow the cells to form three-dimensional structures, as in real tissues, rather than flattening into a single layer in a dish. The experiments are revealing the many ways that cells' immediate surroundings guide their behaviors.

"All of the sudden, half the field is jumping into these 3-D models," says Mina Bissell of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., who helped pioneer 3-D cell cultures about 30 years ago (

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