Vying for the title of World’s Fastest Cell

Scientists film 58 kinds of mobile cells to study movement

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DENVER — Some of the world’s tiniest competitors have gone head–to-head for the first time to decide what holds the title of World’s Fastest Cell.

The competition was born last year at the annual meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology, when Manuel Théry of the Institute for Research in Science and Technology for Living (iRTSV) in Grenoble, France, noticed how many different types of scientists were talking about cell movement. Researchers interested in cancer, developmental biology and cells’ internal skeletons all presented work on how cells move around the body. “In every session people were talking about cell migration,” Théry said.

He and Ana-Maria Lennon-Duménil and Matthieu Piel, both of the Curie Institute in Paris, wanted to know how different types of mobile cells would stack up against each other. The trio decided to hold a race to find out.

Scientists from all over the world sent cells to one of six labs to compete. At the six race centers, volunteers made movies of the cells crawling along 400 micrometer-long tracks made of a protein called fibronectin. The movies were then sent to the French team for analysis. By the end of the competition, the researchers had tracked 10,127 cells of 58 different types in 771 movies.

The team noticed trends in the ways cells move. Some cells creep straight along the track and don’t change direction. Other cells changed direction often. The number of cells within a population that move varies from cell type to cell type. Cells from a dozen different entries didn’t move at all. But among the movers, the researchers found that “cells that move fast do not change direction very much,” Piel said. “Slow cells change direction a lot.”

The finding is a core property of cell migration that researchers might never have learned about if not for the direct comparison of many cell types at once, Théry says.

Piel announced the winners December 3 at this year’s annual meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology.

Easily taking first prize were human fetal mesenchymal stem cells, submitted by Yuchun  Liu of the National University of Singapore. Clocked at 5.2 micrometers (also called microns) per minute, the cells, which were isolated from bone marrow, crossed the finish line far ahead of the nearest competitor. Extreme mobility may be another characteristic of stem cells that set them apart from mature cells and a feature that stem cells share with cancer cells, Théry said.

Second place went to breast epithelial cells submitted by Odile Filhol-Cochet, who also comes from the iRTSV in Grenoble, France. That award was shared by normal versions of the cells that covered the distance at 3.2 microns per minute and a version of the cells that can cause tumors in mice, which clocked in at 2.7 microns per minute.

Third place was awarded to a type of skin cell called keratinocytes taken from people with a rare genetic skin-blistering disease called Kindler syndrome. Those cells were entered by Rumena Begum of King’s College London and ran at 2.5 microns per minute.

The three human winners received a Nikon camera and a medal. The cells got glory.

But the speedy cells weren’t the only winners. The “Tortoise prize” went to mouse embryonic fibroblasts submitted by Harini Krishnan of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. The cells were some of the slowest on the course, but unlike other poky cells that change direction often, the fibroblasts plodded doggedly toward the end of the track. “I guess even in cells, slow and steady wins the race,” Krishnan said.

Krishnan was rewarded for her cells’ persistence with a $1,000 gift certificate to spend on products from CYTOO Cell Architects, a company in Grenoble, France, that made the tracks the cells ran along.

The first world cell race will probably be the last in this form, Théry said. But that doesn’t mean the team is done with staging cell competitions. Next year, cells may compete for speed records moving in three-dimensional channels, or could navigate mazes. Future competitions might include swimming for cells with hair-like projections called cilia and force generation (like weight-lifting for cells), he said.

Human retinal cells race along fibronectin tracks in the first World Cell Race. The winner, fetal bone marrow stem cells, beat out 57 other types of cells.

Credit: World Cell Race

Tina Hesman Saey is the senior staff writer and reports on molecular biology. She has a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from Washington University in St. Louis and a master’s degree in science journalism from Boston University.

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