Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Naturally occurring and stress induced tubular structures from mammalian cells, a survival mechanism

Yonnie Wu1*, Richard C Laughlin1, David C Henry1, Darryl E Krueger2, JoAn S Hudson3, Cheng-Yi Kuan4, Jian He5, Jason Reppert5 and Jeffrey P Tomkins1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Genetics and Biochemistry, Clemson University, Clemson, South Carolina, 29634, USA

2 Department of Biological Science, Clemson University, Clemson, South Carolina, 29634, USA

3 Electron Microscopy Facility, Clemson University, Clemson, South Carolina, 29634, USA

4 Department of Biosystems Engineering, Clemson University, Clemson, South Carolina, 29634, USA

5 Department of Physics and Astronomy, Clemson University, Clemson, South Carolina, 29634, USA

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BMC Cell Biology 2007, 8:36  doi:10.1186/1471-2121-8-36

Published: 16 August 2007



Tubular shaped mammalian cells in response to dehydration have not been previously reported. This may be due to the invisibility of these cells in aqueous solution, and because sugars and salts added to the cell culture for manipulation of the osmotic conditions inhibit transformation of normal cells into tubular shaped structures.


We report the transformation of normal spherical mammalian cells into tubular shaped structures in response to stress. We have termed these transformed structures 'straw cells' which we have associated with a variety of human tissue types, including fresh, post mortem and frozen lung, liver, skin, and heart. We have also documented the presence of straw cells in bovine brain and prostate tissues of mice. The number of straw cells in heart, lung tissues, and collapsed straw cells in urine increases with the age of the mammal. Straw cells were also reproduced in vitro from human cancer cells (THP1, CACO2, and MCF7) and mouse stem cells (D1 and adipose D1) by dehydrating cultured cells. The tubular center of the straw cells is much smaller than the original cell; houses condensed organelles and have filamentous extensions that are covered with microscopic hair-like structures and circular openings. When rehydrated, the filaments uptake water rapidly. The straw cell walls, have a range of 120 nm to 200 nm and are composed of sulfated-glucose polymers and glycosylated acidic proteins. The transformation from normal cell to straw cells takes 5 to 8 hr in open-air. This process is characterized by an increase in metabolic activity. When rehydrated, the straw cells regain their normal spherical shape and begin to divide in 10 to 15 days. Like various types of microbial spores, straw cells are resistant to harsh environmental conditions such as UV-C radiation.


Straw cells are specialized cellular structures and not artifacts from spontaneous polymerization, which are generated in response to stress conditions, like dehydration. The disintegrative, mobile, disruptive and ubiquitous nature of straw cells makes this a possible physiological process that may be involved in human health, longevity, and various types of diseases such as cancer.