Scientists have sequenced a line of HeLa cells, and found them to be "a mess."
In 1951, scientists at Johns Hopkins Hospital harvested cells from Henrietta Lacks. "With her under anesthesia, they just took this small piece of her tumor -- without her knowing -- and they put it in a dish and sent it down the hall," author Rebecca Skloot told CBS.
Those cells multiplied and multiplied and multiplied, becoming the most-studied human cells in scientific research. The quantity of HeLa cells in the world today is so big that it is said that the only way to measure them would be "in tons," though no one has done this. "A typical lab at the University of California," Richard Dawkins wrote in his book A Devil's Chaplain, "grows 48 liters of HeLa cells per day, as a routine service to researchers in the university."
Though their quantity is unknown, their contributions are anything but: HeLa cells were used to test the polio vaccine and have played an instrumental role in research that has led to two recent Nobel prizes. They went into space to test how human cells would fare in zero gravity. "Scientists who come to my talks come up to me and say, 'You cannot overestimate how important HeLa cells have been,'" Skloot said.