The Wall of Polio, version 3.0

Wall of Polio 3.0Back in 2013 I built a Wall of Polio in my laboratory – a large stack of six-well cell culture plates that have been used to measure the concentration of polioviruses in various samples by plaque assay. It became a focal point of the lab at which many guests came to have their photographs taken. Sadly, the Wall fell twice. Now a new Wall – version 3.0 – has been completed.

The new Wall of Polio is in my office at Columbia University Medical Center, where it will not annoy the Fire Inspector (the former Wall partially blocked an aisle). Furthemore, the new Wall is glued together, so it will not come apart. Its construction is documented in the photographs below. The Wall of Polio 3.0 is built with 1,464 six-well plates of HeLa cells that were used to determine the titer of poliovirus. We have also already had a number of visitors to Wall 3.0.

Because the Wall is impressive, it attracts attention, which can then be used to explain the plaque assay and determining virus titer. Therefore it is simply another tool that I used to teach the world about virology.

When you visit, expect that I will ask to photograph you before the Wall. Only a few have refused.


Henrietta Lacks (HeLa) genome sequence published then withdrawn

HeLa cellsEarlier this month the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) published the DNA sequence of the genome of HeLa cells, the cell line that is widely used for research in virology, cell biology, and many other areas. This cell line was produced from a tumor taken from Henrietta Lacks in 1951. Unfortunately the EMBL did not receive permission from Ms. Lacks’ family to publish her genome sequence, and have withdrawn the information from public databases.

The history of HeLa cells has been well chronicled in Johns Hopkins Magazine and by Rebecca Skloot in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. In early 1951, Ms. Lacks was found to have a malignant tumor of the cervix. During her examination at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, MD, a sample of the tumor was removed and used to produce the HeLa cell line. But Ms. Lacks’ family never learned about the important cells that were derived from her until 24 years after her death.

It is quite clear that permission to publish the HeLa cell genome sequence should have been obtained from the Lacks family. This issue are discussed in an opinion piece by Rebecca Skloot in the New York Times.

I was honored to work with Rebecca Skloot during the preparation of Immortal Life, and I am flattered that Ms. Skloot thanked me in the afterward of the book. I have also written about my work with HeLa cells (that’s me in the photo with a spinner of the cells). You might also be interested in my conversation with Philip Marcus, who was the first to produce single cell clones of HeLa cells.

TWiV 118: The virus always rings twice

Hosts: Vincent Racaniello, Alan Dove, and Rich Condit

On episode #118 of the podcast This Week in Virology, Vincent, Alan, and Rich answer listener questions about vaccinia virus, fungal viruses, synthetic viruses, influenza vaccine, HeLa cells, multiplicity of infection, and much more.

Click the arrow above to play, or right-click to download TWiV #118 (68 MB .mp3, 94  minutes).

Subscribe to TWiV (free) in iTunes , at the Zune Marketplace, by the RSS feed, or by email, or listen on your mobile device with the Microbeworld app.

Links for this episode:

Weekly Science Picks

Alan – What you need to know about infectious disease
Rich – Bad Project (YouTube)
Vincent – Federal research center will help develop medicines

Send your virology questions and comments (email or mp3 file) to You can also post articles that you would like us to discuss at and tag them with twiv.