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August 30, 2006
Those Darn Invisible Creatures
If you want to make your friends in the cell culture lab jump, just walk up behind them and shout "mycoplasma!" (What's that? You say you have no friends in the cell culture lab? Hmm. . .)
Mycoplasma is a scary word because they're scary little organisms. They're bacteria, just barely, running much smaller than usual and without any sort of cell wall. They also have the tiniest genomes you're likely to ever see - being parasitic allows them to get away with a pretty limited instruction set. They can cause diseases in humans and other animals (excellent review here), but they just love to hang out with your cultured cell lines, too.
From their (admittedly rather limited) perspective, what's not to like? Constant temperature, lots of food, and plenty of well-taken-care-of cells to mooch off of. Problem is, once they get in there, they alter the behavior of the cells they've infected, and you can't trust the results of your assays with them any more. Every cell culture lab tests for these things, and every one of them still has the occasional outbreak. It's the price of doing business. If the cells aren't precious, they're tossed - if they are, there are some antibiotics that will generally kill the little creatures off, but you still have to watch things closely for a while. (If you don't want to test them yourself, you can send samples to these guys, and they'll do it for you).
There have been periodic mycoplasma spasms in many research areas, as various groups have found that their results are suspect due to contamination. Since the little beasts pass right through filters that will strain out normal bacteria, and can't even be reliably seen under normal microscopy conditions in many cell cultures, a little paranoia is justified. Have you checked your cells recently?
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