“Vous, qui aspirez à la Métamorphose Singulière que seul GenTrip’ peut vous procurer, devez intégrer cette unique vérité: tout – et nous voulons bien signifier TOUT ici – n’est que lien. Les connaissances que vous devez intégrer ne signifient quelque chose que dans l’exacte mesure oú elles dépendant exclusivement des rapports, des relations, bref des liens entre ce que l’on appelait jadis des «faits» ou des «évènements». La mémoire des «faits» ou des «évènements» ne vous sera d’aucun secours après votre initiation, si tant est que vous passiez avec succès l’épreuve initiatique. Seuls doivent subsister dans votre conscience augmentée les passages entre ces supposées faits et évènements.” (Bardini & Lestel, 2010:18)
Bruno Latour’s networks and modes of existence (2005, 2013), Tim Ingold’s meshwork (2011), Philippe Descola’s ontologies (2005), Deleuze & Guattari’s rizhome (1980). What I take from these various concepts is the core of relational thinking: we are only ever together. Or, as Donna Haraway has said it: in When Species Meet (2008), we have never been human. In fact, “[t]o be one is always to become with many” (Haraway, 2008:4).
This leads us to the concept of symbiosis or, simply, being together. This biological concept specifically refers to “long-term physical associations” of different organisms (Margulis & Sagan, 2002:12), this togetherness leads to fusion and a third kind of organism can arise. Stable and long-term symbiosis is termed symbiogenesis: it is this which scientists (save the neodarwinists) argue is at the origin of species (Margulis & Sagan, 2002). They believe the first eukaryotic cells (cells with a nucleus), is a result of symbiogenesis. This scientific theory of the origin of species is specifically one of relations and togetherness: something I feel we have an easy time forgetting in our Western tendency to categorize and isolate.
Remarkably, it is a notion that is present in science fiction and popular culture. I spent part of my holidays watching the whole Star Wars series for the first time since my childhood with the goal of going to see Episode Seven before it’s out of theatres. I was excitedly surprised to hear the word symbionts in Episode One (McCallum & Lucas, 1999) of the praised spatial saga:
Anakin Skywalker: Master, sir, I heard Yoda talking about midi-chlorians. I’ve been wondering…what are midi-chlorians?
Qui-Gon Jinn: Midi-chlorians are a microscopic lifeform that reside within all living cells and communicates with the Force.
Anakin Skywalker: They live inside of me?
Qui-Gon Jinn: In your cells, yes. We are symbionts with them-
Anakin Skywalker: Symbionts?
Qui-Gon Jinn: Life forms living together for mutual advantage. Without the midi-chlorians, life could not exist, and we would have no knowledge of the Force. They continually speak to you, telling you the will of the Force. When you learn to quiet your mind, you will hear them speaking to you.
The concept of being, and BECOMING together is essential to our understanding of connected worlds where so many processes and phenomena end up being black-boxed, in the cybernetic sense of the term. Pushing the concept of symbiogenesis beyond its biological definitions can prove useful to assess other instances of reality. This fusion of beings as resulting in something new, itself dynamic unstable and becoming, can help us get a better grasp of the human-cell relationship in laboratory.
For one, the relationships between cells and researchers can seen as symbiosis: long-term physical association. The cells can’t survive without the researcher, and the researcher can’t survive without the cells! This association is physical as biologists and now scientists and artists of all trades get their hands gloved and pipetting, mixing, pipetting, counting, pipetting. Beyond these tools which can be seen as media, extension of our senses and physical ability (McLuhan, 1964), cells cultivated in laboratories are literally symbionts of our host being. As such, our togetherness results in something more, something more than just me – Christine – a student of the University of Ottawa and something more than just the cells – C2C12s – either dead or frozen.
Considering the symbiotic relationship I have with cells has gotten me to question where our relationship stands, and in which ecology. A recent event in the lab has allowed me to gain more insight into the conditions of possibility which enable this particular symbiosis to be actualized and have opened my eyes about the broadness of human-cell relationship.
It was Friday afternoon, January 8th 2016. I left my house with a pair of running shoes in a plastic bag and my knapsack on my back, heading to the University and back to the Pelling Lab. That alone was a stark difference between cell culture in the Winter and cell culture in the Summer: I needed to change out of my boots to be comfortable in the lab. Take off the coat, scarf, hat and thick mittens. The game hasn’t seemingly changed, but getting there has.
Beyond this initial difference, my enthusiasm around being reunited with my cells was mixed with some nervousness associated with unfreezing my cells. What will it be like to meet them now that they’ve been sitting in liquid nitrogen for a few months? The protocol is simple: warm up some media, put 5mL in a vial. Open up the freezing tank, remove a small 1mL vial of frozen cells. Unfreezing them is easy, organic, yet unnerving: you simply unfreeze them with the heat of your hands which passes through the blue plastic gloves. In the vial with the warm media it goes to be centrifuged and separated from the freezing media which contains DMSO, a substance which is harmful for living cells at non-freezing temperatures. Following centrifugation, the cell pellet is isolated and re-suspended in fresh growth media. The whole is transferred to a 10cm petri dish and you’re good to go. I left in apprehension, nervous about the viability of my now unfrozen cells. As I had said, it was a Friday. I planned to come by on Saturday to have a look at my cells. I also knew there were a lot in there, some dead and some alive. I was hoping to change the media or split my cells if the need arose to ensure proper cell growth.
Come Saturday morning. I live quite a ways from the University and usually travel to a Park and Ride to make my way to school by bus. The weekend calls for another practice: there is no traffic and the University provides graduate student with a free weekend parking pass. My drive in was nice, but I was anxious to see what state my cells were in. I parked the car. I walked up to the Macdonald building: the outside door was unlocked so my pass was not yet required. I strolled down the stars to the basement where the lab resides. I sat on a little couch, right outside the lab next to the large entry door. I took off my boots, put on my sneakers and laced them up. I got up, reached for the access card in my coat pocket and scanned it.
The light turned red once, as usual. But instead of being met with the green light allowing me entry to the world on the other side, I was greeted by another beeping red light. I was denied access.
At first, I was simply confused. I passed my card again in front of the scanner. And again. And again. Each time, I was denied access to the laboratory, my workspace, my living space! I climbed the stairs to the lab’s office space to see if another student would maybe be there. Being it was the first weekend back from the holiday break, I got no luck. I climbed back down hoping someone would perhaps arrive but saw no one. I tried the card again to no avail. I found the number of the phones in the lab, the ring rung but there was no one inside the lab to answer. Defeated, and already knowing the outcome, I made my way to the Protection Services on campus. They couldn’t let me in if my card didn’t work, though I wasn’t the first to be having problems since the holiday break. “Some of the cards may have been reset or something. It’s the departments that handle these things. It’ll have to wait until Monday.” I got the answer I knew I would get. I went back to my car, admittedly frustrated. My cells, these living things, this form of life… they depend on my presence! I had just unfrozen them the day before, I needed to go see them and assess them and help them make it through the weekend! But the fact was, institutions and politics were also part of our ecology. This life does not depend only on my care and the human-cell relationship surpasses immediate lab work.
Defeated, I drove home and wrote. I wrote of fear. The fear of losing my cells. I spent the rest of the weekend catching up on other work and trying to ignore the growing fear and anxiety about going back to the lab on Monday morning.
I made my way to the Macdonald building early afternoon, as I had a busy morning attending to other tasks. I went downstairs to try my access card: it worked. I went to the physics department which issued the card and didn’t get much of an answer. It was blamed on the holiday hours and I was to come back if I had issues another weekend. So I made my way back down, and unfortunately on Monday I had forgotten my shoes so I got the (un)pleasure of working in the lab in my boots. I proceed to split my cells, hoping they weren’t in too bad of a state. Prior to splitting, the plate was very if not excessively confluent which made me uneasy. I still proceeded and vowed to come see them the next day. During the procedure, I got to observe cell shape during the cell counting step. What I saw was not nice rounded cells but oddly-shaped and strangely wrinkled cells.
I went to see them Tuesday but there wasn’t much too see yet. They looked a bit better on Wednesday. Thursday was a busy day where I wasn’t able to drop by the lab. Today’s Friday, a week after I initially unfroze my cells. I’ll be heading to the lab in the afternoon to check on my cells. I’ll do some 3D printing. I need to start a trial soon: 4 control dishes, 4 dishes with wood each with 200, 000 C2C12 cells. I’m hoping my cells will be okay and that I can start the trial this weekend, if not today even!
The past week has reminded me about the fragility of the human-cell relationship which relies on so many mediation in its becoming. If anything, it’s while I was away from my cells, when the routine of cell culture practices where broken, when something got in the way of the craft…. that I heard, past the heavy silence of our symbiosis, the voices of my cells.
Update: We are now Saturday. I wasn’t able to start my trial yesterday but my cells were healthy. I was lucky enough to run into Ryan, a physics PhD student at the lab, and he helped me confirm my cells were good to go for a trial. I am now just back from the lab, it’s 9:30, were I split my cells, set up my dishes for cell culture and started a trial. The excitement is real. This trial, it feels like an attempt at breaking the silence.
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