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Culturing Life How Cells Became Technologies by Hannah Landecker

Culturing Life How Cells Became Technologies

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Culturing Life How Cells Became Technologies by Hannah Landecker

How did cells make the journey, one we take so much for granted, from their origin in living bodies to something that can be grown and manipulated on artificial media in the laboratory, a substantial biomass living outside a human body, plant, or animal? This is the question at the heart of Hannah Landecker's book. She shows how cell culture changed the way we think about such central questions of the human condition as individuality, hybridity, and even immortality and asks what it means that we can remove cells from the spatial and temporal constraints of the body and 'harness them to human intention'. Rather than focus on single discrete biotechnologies and their stories - embryonic stem cells, transgenic animals - Landecker documents and explores the wider genre of technique behind artificial forms of cellular life. She traces the lab culture common to all those stories, asking where it came from and what it means to our understanding of life, technology, and the increasingly blurry boundary between them. The technical culture of cells has transformed the meaning of the term 'biological', as life becomes disembodied, distributed widely in space and time. Once we have a more specific grasp on how altering biology changes what it is to be biological, Landecker argues, we may be more prepared to answer the social questions that biotechnology is raising.


A mere century ago, scientists didn't know how to culture cells in a medium and believed that cells couldn't live outside their parent organism. As Landecker reminds us, today we can hardly live without cell cultures, which are used for everything from routine medical tests to genetic engineering...She is a keen observer of scientific practice. Publishers Weekly 20061113 The discovery that it was possible to grow cells in a lab dish transformed them from being the immutable building blocks of individual bodies into plastic, malleable resources with a life of their own. In Culturing Life, anthropologist Hannah Landecker skillfully interweaves the scientific, historical, and cultural aspects of this transformation, and examines how cell culture challenges humanity's notions of individuality and immortality...An insightful and thought-provoking perspective on how technology has changed scientists
and society

's understanding of life. -- Claire Ainsworth New Scientist 20070224 In the flood of instant comment on cloning and stem cells, we need the longer and deeper views of cellular technologies that only history can provide. Historians of science have written much about the nineteenth-century advent of cell theory, but genes and molecules stole the limelight in the twentieth...Culturing Life by Hannah Landecker is a small book that does much to fill that large gap...[An] original book...[A] stimulating reconstruction of the cultures that gave us cultured cells. -- Nick Hopwood Nature 20070308 Few laymen realize that scientists first fused cells from different species as far back as the 1960s, as Ms. Landecker describes...The level-headedness that can be gained from historical perspective is the value in reading Ms. Landecker's account. The Economist 20070331 Hannah Landecker's fascinating, beautifully written account of the history of cell culture restores the sense of wonder felt by the first scientists who grew living cells apart from organisms and by the people who read about their achievements in scientific journals, popular magazines, and newspapers. But this book does much more than that; it sheds a unique light on the history of biology in the 20th century, the rise of biotechnology, and our understanding of what life is...By reflecting on the catastrophic, artificial, and radically new variety of life that arises in the laboratory, Landecker opens new ways to articulate the ideas of the French philosopher of science Georges Canguilhem about the distinction between the normal and the pathologic. Cultured cells bring into question our understanding of the biologic, but their infinite plasticity, as Landecker eloquently shows, often unfolds in the normative space of medicine. -- Ilana Lowy New England Journal of Medicine With her book Culturing Life, Hannah Landecker contributes an important chapter to the recent history of laboratory fractals. Her elegantly written and well-documented narrative demonstrates how, within 20th-century biological laboratories, a whole range of vessels and containers were used in order to store, breed, study, and manipulate cells and tissue outside the body of organic individuals: from hanging-drop preparations in the 1910s to tissue culture flasks in the 1930s and powerful freezers in the 1950s and 1960s...The great merit of this book is its demonstration that these spaces of knowledge also create and imply specific regimes of temporality. -- Henning Schmidgen Project Muse Scholoary Journals Online Hannah Landecker provides a wonderful assortment of descriptions of experimental design, 'eureka'-type moments in the lab and the scientists responsible for initiating this new technology during the early 1900s, along with its evolution to the present...Well-written historical accounts of scientific discovery allow the reader to appreciate the adversities confronting the scientists involved and the circumstances that drove their discoveries and to wonder what may happen next. Culturing Life is no exception. -- Kendall L. Knight Nature Publishing Group Book Review In this thoughtful, often elegant book, Hannah Landecker bridges the histories of science, medicine, and technology as she explores how cells were domesticated to the laboratory...She argues persuasively that appreciating the subtleties of cell culture history enables us to think more clearly and more deeply about current biotechnology. Culturing Life, then, is a fine example of translational historical research. -- Nathaniel Comfort Project Muse Scholoary Journals Online Well-written historical accounts of scientific discovery allow the reader to appreciate the adversities confronting the scientists involved and the circumstances that drove their discoveries and to wonder what may happen next. Culturing Life is no exception. -- Kendall L. Knight Nature Medicine 20080701'

About the Author

Hannah Landecker is Associate Professor of Sociology at University of California, Los Angeles.

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Book Info

Publication date

1st October 2009


Hannah Landecker

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Harvard University Press


288 pages


Cellular biology (cytology)



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