Forty-three-year-old Gilda Civitico and I are sipping tea and talking about craft in the open-plan rear extension of the modest brick home she shares with her partner, electrical engineer Andrew Peel, and their two young daughters. In the light-filled space are shelves of games, fossils and magazines: New Scientist, IEEE Spectrum, New Economist, Make and Craft, amid a collection of specialist books she calls her ‘craft porn’ (including The Art of Manipulating Fabric and Metal Clay: The Complete Guide).
In her previous professional life, Civitico often worked with fluffy ducklings, easing them tenderly into a sink. ‘I gave them a little pat and let them have a swim,’ she tells me. ‘With their mates.’ Then she cupped a duckling in her hand, anaesthetised it, and while its tiny heart still quivered, she sliced open its belly, snapped through its rib cage, disentangled the organs, and harvested its slippery liver, snipping off portal veins and connective vessels. ‘You have to do it while it’s still alive,’ she explains, ‘or the blood clots.’
It was fiddly work, in which speed and precision were essential. You can’t culture live cells if cell function starts shutting down.
After taking a liver, Civitico swiftly flushed out its red blood cells. She doused it with collagenase, an enzyme that breaks down the binding proteins and transforms the organ into the consistency of soft tofu. She pressed this still-warm mound into a sieve so fine as to only allow single cells through. The resulting slurry she spun in a warm centrifuge, which separated the cells into three distinct bands: fat cells at the top; remnant red blood cells in the middle; and at the bottom, the denser material she coveted – hepatocytes (the main liver tissue cells).
As we tuck into hot scones and homemade jam, she explains the labyrinthine process that followed. Once she isolated the cells, she suspended them in pre-warmed culture media and started a gentle layering and centrifuging in a process she likens to cooking. ‘Think liquid red jelly being gently layered onto not-quite-set green jelly,’ she says. ‘You don’t want them to be mixed.’ When she got the cell density just right, she syringed the substance into a pipette, washed the cells, counted them and checked their viability by a staining process. ‘And then you dilute them out with media to the right number of cells per millilitre of media and this is what you use to seed your cell culture plates.’
Left overnight, exiled in their Petri dishes and sustained with the right temperatures and gas mixtures, the duckling liver cells bonded together and also to their new homes. And, each day for the next few weeks, Civitico tended to their needs, changing growth medium and nutrients. This microbial life-support regime, she explains, is but the first of many procedures before the finicky business of DNA profiling and Hepatitis B dose-response analysis.
Civitico earned her PhD in virology at Melbourne University and, working at the Victorian Infectious Diseases Reference Laboratory, soon became a deft hand at complex experiments. Some contingents, like the ideal nutrient profile in growth medium, were knowable by keeping abreast of specialist literature. But others – like the subtle colour- or shape-shifts that might suggest cell fatigue, or the ways some cells seem to prefer certain plastic plates – couldn’t be codified in a procedures manual or even adequately explained to an assistant.
Read ‘The rhythm of engagement’ in its entirety.