Havoc in biology's most-used human cell line: Genome of HeLa cells sequenced for the first time

March 12, 2013, European Molecular Biology Laboratory
Since 1951, HeLa cells have made a significant impact in many areas of science and research. Credit: EMBL/Jonathan Landry

HeLa cells are the world's most commonly used human cell lines, and have served as a standard for understanding many fundamental biological processes. In a study published today in G3: Genes, Genomes and Genetics online, scientists at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, announce they have successfully sequenced the genome of a HeLa cell line. It provides a high-resolution genomic reference that reveals the striking differences between the HeLa genome and that of normal human cells. The study could improve the way HeLa cells are used to model human biology.

The scientists' analysis of the HeLa revealed widespread abnormalities in both the number and structure of chromosomes, as well as factors commonly associated with like losing healthy copies of genes. In particular, the researchers found that countless regions of the chromosomes in each cell were arranged in the wrong order and had extra or fewer copies of genes. This is a telltale sign of chromosome shattering, a recently discovered phenomenon associated with 2-3% of all cancers. Knowledge of the genetic landscape of these cells can inform the design of future studies using HeLa cells, and strengthen the biological conclusions that can be made from them.

"The results provide the first detailed sequence of a HeLa genome," explain Jonathan Landry and Paul Pyl from EMBL, who carried out the research. "It demonstrates how genetically complex HeLa is compared to normal . Yet, possibly because of this complexity, no one had systematically sequenced the genome, until now."

"Our study underscores the importance of accounting for the abnormal characteristics of HeLa cells in experimental design and analysis, and has the potential to refine the use of HeLa cells as a model of human biology," adds Lars Steinmetz from EMBL, who led the project.

For decades HeLa cells have provided effective and easily usable biological models for researching human biology and disease. They are widely regarded as the 'industry standard' tool for studying human biology. Studies using them have led to two Nobel prizes and a host of advancements in many areas, including cancer, HIV/AIDS and the development of the polio vaccine. The HeLa genome had never been sequenced before, and modern molecular genetic studies using HeLa cells are typically designed and analysed using the Human Genome Project reference. This, however, misrepresents the sequence chaos that characterises HeLa , since they were derived from a cervical tumour and have since been adapting in laboratories for decades.

The study provides a high-resolution genetic picture of a key research tool for human biology. It highlights the extensive differences that cell lines can have from the human reference, indicating that such characterisation is important for all research involving and could improve the insights they deliver into human biology.

Explore further: Biological computer destroys cancer cells

More information: Landry, J. et al. The genomic and transcriptomic landscape of a HeLa cell line, - Advanced online publication in G3: Genes, Genomes and Genetics on 11th March 2013. DOI: 10.1534/g3.113.005777

Related Stories

Biological computer destroys cancer cells

September 1, 2011
Researchers led by ETH professor Yaakov Benenson and MIT professor Ron Weiss have successfully incorporated a diagnostic biological "computer" network in human cells. This network recognizes certain cancer cells using logic ...

Misidentified and contaminated cell lines lead to faulty cancer science

June 21, 2012
Modern cancer therapies start in cells – researchers compare cancer samples to healthy cells to discover how cancer is genetically different, and use cell lines to test promising new drugs. However, a University of Colorado ...

Study reveals new details about a protein that enables cancer cells to start new tumors in distant sites

March 14, 2012
(Medical Xpress) -- A Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine study has revealed details of the complex molecular process involving a protein that enables cancer cells to establish tumors in distant parts of ...

Recommended for you

Peers' genes may help friends stay in school, new study finds

January 18, 2018
While there's scientific evidence to suggest that your genes have something to do with how far you'll go in school, new research by a team from Stanford and elsewhere says the DNA of your classmates also plays a role.

Epigenetics study helps focus search for autism risk factors

January 16, 2018
Scientists have long tried to pin down the causes of autism spectrum disorder. Recent studies have expanded the search for genetic links from identifying genes toward epigenetics, the study of factors that control gene expression ...

Group recreates DNA of man who died in 1827 despite having no body to work with

January 16, 2018
An international team of researchers led by a group with deCODE Genetics, a biopharmaceutical company in Iceland, has partly recreated the DNA of a man who died in 1827, despite having no body to take tissue samples from. ...

The surprising role of gene architecture in cell fate decisions

January 16, 2018
Scientists read the code of life—the genome—as a sequence of letters, but now researchers have also started exploring its three-dimensional organisation. In a paper published in Nature Genetics, an interdisciplinary research ...

Study advances gene therapy for glaucoma

January 16, 2018
While testing genes to treat glaucoma by reducing pressure inside the eye, University of Wisconsin-Madison scientists stumbled onto a problem: They had trouble getting efficient gene delivery to the cells that act like drains ...

How incurable mitochondrial diseases strike previously unaffected families

January 15, 2018
Researchers have shown for the first time how children can inherit a severe - potentially fatal - mitochondrial disease from a healthy mother. The study, led by researchers from the MRC Mitochondrial Biology Unit at the University ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Roland
not rated yet Mar 12, 2013

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.