Getting Started with an ATCC Cell Line

Animal Cell Culture Guide Getting Started with an ATCC Cell Line

Table of Contents

Getting Started

ATCC cell lines and hybridomas are shipped frozen on dry ice in cryopreservation vials or as growing cultures in flasks at ambient temperature. Upon receipt of frozen cells, it is important to immediately revive them by thawing and removing the DMSO and placing them into culture. If this is not possible, store the cells in liquid nitrogen vapor (below -130°C). Do not store frozen cells at temperatures above -130°C as their viability will decline rapidly.

Product Sheet

ATCC cell lines come with a Product Sheet that contains detailed information for handling the cells. An abbreviated version may be found at the ATCC website or contact ATCC Customer Care to request a copy. The Product Sheet also contains batch-specific information such as the number of cells per vial, the recommended split or subcultivation ratio, and the passage number when known.

Preparation of Medium

Prepare for reviving cell lines by assembling the appropriate medium, serum, and additional reagents required for growth. Many of these products are available from ATCC and can be ordered with the cell lines. These are the same reagents used by ATCC for cell growth and preservation. (See: NOTE)


While most cell lines can replicate in more than one culture medium, their characteristics may alter when the medium is changed. For this reason, starting cell cultures in the same medium used by ATCC is recommended for the best results (see the Product Information Sheet and ATCC website). For details on adapting a cell line to a new medium, see section on cell growth and propagation.

Initiating Frozen Cultures

  1. Prepare a culture vessel so that it contains the recommended volume of the appropriate culture medium as listed on the Product Sheet, equilibrated for temperature and pH (CO2).
  2. Thaw the vial by gentle agitation in a water bath at 37°C or the normal growth temperature for that cell line. Thawing should be rapid, approximately 2 minutes or until ice crystals have melted.
  3. Remove the vial from the water bath and decontaminate it by dipping in or spraying with 70% ethanol. Follow strict aseptic conditions in a laminar flow tissue culture hood for all further manipulations.
  4. Unscrew the top of the vial and transfer the contents to a sterile centrifuge tube containing 9 mL of the recommended medium. Remove the cryoprotectant agent (DMSO) by gentle centrifugation (10 minutes at 125 × g). Discard the supernatant, and resuspend the cells in 1 or 2 mL of complete growth medium. Transfer the cell suspension into the culture vessel containing the complete growth medium and mix thoroughly by gentle rocking.
  5. Examine the cell cultures after 24 hours and subculture as needed. (See: NOTE)


Some cell lines, such as hybridomas, take several days before fully recovering from cryopreservation. Some hybridomas have poor viability the first day in culture and will generate cellular debris. After this point, the cells will begin to recover and enter exponential growth.

Processing Flask Cultures

Media in a petri dish

Some ATCC cell, are shipped as growing cultures in culture vessels. These vessels are seeded with cells, incubated to ensure cell growth and then filled completely with medium for shipping.

If the cells are attached and growing in a monolayer:

  1. Aseptically remove all but 5 mL to 10 mL of the shipping medium. The shipping medium can be saved for reuse and should be stored at 4°C.
  2. Incubate the flask at the temperature and CO2 concentration recommended on the Product Sheet (37°C with 5% CO2 for most cell lines) until the cells are subcultured.

If the cells are not attached or are growing in suspension:

  1. Aseptically transfer the entire contents of the flask to a centrifuge tube.
  2. Centrifuge at 125 × g for 5 to 10 minutes.
  3. Remove all but 10 mL of the shipping medium supernatant and resuspend the cells. Store the remainder of this medium at 4°C for later use.
  4. Aseptically transfer the resuspended cells to a 25-cm2 flask or 75-cm2 flask, depending upon the cell line (see the Product Sheet).
  5. Incubate the cells at the temperature and CO2 concentration recommended on the Product Information Sheet until cells are subcultured.

Most cell lines begin as primary cultures originating from a piece of minced or enzyme-dispersed tissue. Primary cultures, as mixtures of several cell types, retain the characteristics of their source tissue.

After a period of time, primary cultures will reach confluency, the state when all available space of the culture vessel is covered due to cellular expansion. At this point, the culture will need to be disaggregated (usually with proteolytic enzymes like trypsin) into individual cells and subcultured (split, passaged, or transferred). Following this first passage, the culture is generally referred to as a cell line. With each subsequent subculture, the cellular population becomes more homogeneous as the faster growing cells predominate. Cells with desired properties can also be selected out of the culture by cloning.

Diploid cell lines rarely progress beyond a few population doublings. They have a finite replicative capacity and begin to slow down and eventually stop dividing after 20 to 80 population doublings.1 Recent evidence suggests that some of the observed cellular senescence in cell culture may be due to inappropriate culture conditions as opposed to a predetermined replicative senescence.2 Still other data support replicative senescence for the cells of some species (notably human) even when grown in improved culture conditions. This senescence is mediated by the shortening of the ends of the chromosomes (telomeres) with each cell division.3

In contrast, continuous (or immortalized) cell lines have infinite replicative capacity. These lines are derived from cell lines through immortalization or transformation by any one of a number of means. Many continuous cell lines were derived from tumor tissue. Most of the cell lines in the ATCC collection are continuous, though a few, such as CCD-1117Sk human skin fibroblast (ATCC® CRL-2465™) or CCD-18Co human colon (ATCC® CRL-1459™) are finite. For more information about ATCC immortalized cell lines see the website.

As noted in the section on culture vessels, cell lines grow either attached to a surface (anchorage dependent) or in suspension (anchorage independent). As cells grow and divide in a monolayer or in suspension, they usually follow a characteristic growth pattern composed of four phases: Lag, log or exponential, stationary or plateau and decline.

  • Lag phase — Immediately after seeding of the culture vessel, the cells grow slowly while recovering from the stress of sub-culturing.
  • Log or exponential phase — The cells enter a period of exponential growth that lasts until the entire growth surface is occupied or the cell concentration exceeds the capacity of the medium.
  • Stationary phase — Cell proliferation slows and stops.
  • Decline phase — If the culture medium is not replaced and the cell number is not reduced, the cells lose viability and their number decreases.

To ensure viability, genetic stability, and phenotypic stability, cell lines need to be maintained in the exponential phase. This means that they need to be subcultured on a regular basis before they enter the stationary growth phase, before a monolayer becomes 100% confluent or before a suspension reaches its maximum recommended cell density. Generating a growth curve for each cell line is useful to determine the growth characteristics of the cell line. (See: Figure 1)

For detailed information on the growth and propagation of any ATCC cell line, see the specific cell line Product Sheet on the ATCC website or contact ATCC Customer Care for more information.

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