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HeLa cells have contributed to work in thousands of research papers but sequencing shows their genome to be full of errors.

The research world’s most famous human cell has had its genome decoded, and it’s a mess. German researchers this week report the genome sequence of the HeLa cell line, which originates from a deadly cervical tumour taken from a patient named Henrietta Lacks.

Established after Lacks died in 1951, HeLa cells were the first human cells to grow well in the laboratory. The cells have contributed to more than 60,000 research papers, the development of a polio vaccine in the 1950s and, most recently, an international effort to characterize the genome, known as ENCODE.

Previous work showed that HeLa cells, like many tumours, have bizarre, error-filled genomes, with one or more extra copies of many chromosomes. To get a closer look at these alterations, a team led by Lars Steinmetz, a geneticist at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany, sequenced the popular 'Kyoto' version of the cell line and compared the sequence with that of a reference human genome. The team's results are published in G3.

Steinmetz’s team confirmed that HeLa cells contain one extra version of most...