Redefining a Cell

How the Internet of cells has biologists buzzing
Networks of nanotubes may allow cells to share everything from infections and cancer to dementia-linked proteins.

It’s pretty interesting. Here’s just a short excerpt:
“The work has captured imaginations. “It was a seminal paper,” says Okafo. “Prior to that there was still some scepticism about whether these phenomena existed in vivo.” But it’s not clear whether Winkler’s results apply to other scenarios. Various sorts of brain cell are known to send out cell protrusions as they grow and proliferate. The tubes that Winkler’s team reported are much larger than the ‘tunnelling nanotubes’ that were originally described by Gerdes, and, unlike most tunnelling nanotubes reported so far, contain microtubules — filaments that move components around in cells. However, Winkler thinks that his work provides evidence for a broad role for tunnelling-nanotube-like structures. He thinks they may not be able to reach full size in culture, and the tubes he does see vary considerably in length and thickness. Winkler recalls discussing his work with Gerdes before Gerdes’ death in 2013. “He said that this was what the field was waiting for. It was exactly the proof that he thought we could find.”

In other fields, too, the tubes are gaining traction. Eliseo Eugenin, who studies HIV at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in Newark, suggests that HIV-infected cells send out multiple nanotubes filled with virus to reach uninfected cells. Circulation and one-on-one cellular contact would be too inefficient to cause the rapid amplification of the virus seen in newly infected patients. “The mathematics don’t work,” he says. He thinks that other researchers are sceptical of nanotubes because they are unable to reconcile themselves to the idea that cells are constantly exchanging materials, including genetic information. “Our definition of a cell is falling apart,” Eugenin says. “That is why people don’t believe in these tubes, because we have to change the definition of a cell.”

Battle lines
When the definition of the cell is at stake, it is little wonder that scepticism remains strong. Emil Lou, a cancer researcher at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, says his grant proposal to hunt for and characterize nanotubes in human cancers was pooh-poohed because a reviewer was not convinced that the structures existed.

Others argue that they do exist — but only in the rarefied world of the Petri dish. Michael Dustin, an immunologist at the University of Oxford, UK, says that he has seen cells in dishes form structures that would never occur in the dense tissue of an organism. For example, white blood cells primed to produce antibodies produce a “beautifully symmetric” bull’s-eye pattern in a dish, very different from the chaos and asymmetry they show in the body.”

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