Listen to one of our scientific editorial team members read this article.
Click here to access more audio articles or subscribe.
Want to use a cell line but not sure where to start? Or perhaps you’re just curious about the most commonly used cell lines. Our top 5 most commonly used cell lines will help you get a feel for the cells that many researchers turn to.
Top 5 Commonly Used Cell Lines
Number 5: Sf9 Cells
Well, we didn’t say that it would just be human cell lines, did we?
Derived from the ovaries of the fall armyworm moth (Spodoptera frugiperda), these cells are probably related to all insect cell lines in labs worldwide. 
Sf9 insect epithelial cells can be cultured as adherent or suspension cells. Most cell lines are adherent cells, which grow only on the surfaces of culture vessels. This limits the number of cells you can expect to obtain from each culture. Similarly to E. coli, suspension cells can grow in the entire volume of the medium, thus increasing the number of cells that can be harvested from a vessel. Furthermore, and because of the high volume-to-cell number ratio, suspension cultures allow much more effective use of medium than adherent cultures. Sf9/baculovirus systems are typically preferred for large-scale protein production, including industrial manufacture of mammalian proteins, including the vaccine for cervical cancer CERVARIX®. 
Number 4: CHO cells
CHO, or Chinese hamster ovary cells, are clearly ovary-derived cells, but this time, we are talking about mammalian cells. Similarly to Sf9 cells, they can exist both as adherent or suspension cells in culture. CHO cells are used in many biological, medical, and pharmaceutical research applications, including recombinant protein production , and studies of the epidermal growth factor receptor. 
Number 3: Insert Your Favorite Immortalized Human Cell Line Here!
Some may consider it cheating to use a cell line collection instead of a single cell line. But depending on your research area, you may use a collection such as those from the NCI-60 Human Tumor Cell Lines Screen. 
Alternatively, you might be interested in working with Jurkat or HL-60 (white blood cells), MCF-7 (breast cancer), Saos-2 cells (bone cancer), PC3 (prostate cancer), HepG2 (Liver cancer), or many others.
Let’s move on to the top unquestionable leaders of our cell lines hit parade.
Number 2: HEK293 Cells
HEK293, or human embryonic kidney-derived epithelial cells, are arguably one of the most commonly used cell lines in cell biology research. But why?
HEK293 is a rapidly dividing, robust line cell with a good reputation for post-translational modification of its heterologously expressed proteins. It’s also pretty amenable to transfection. Therefore, it’s hardly surprising that it is often the cell line of choice in transient and stable transformation experiments, for protein expression and production, and even in electrophysiological experiments. 
And now for the undisputed leader of them all, the first immortal human cell line, established in 1951.
Number 1: HeLa Cells
Unlike the cell lines above, HeLa cells are named after an individual, an American woman called Henrietta Lacks. This article is too long to give a full history, but if you aren’t aware of how this cell line came to be, you should read more about the harrowing origins of the HeLa cell line.
Shortly after the establishment of this cell line, HeLa cells were used to proliferate the famous polio vaccine, and they continue to be the most widely used cell line in research labs worldwide.
According to The Guardian, HeLa “has led to hundreds, if not thousands, of new pieces of knowledge, and helped to shape the way medicine moved in the second half of the 20th century and the first decade of this one”. 
It is worth noting that working with cell lines, like HeLa, has its caveats. For example, striking differences between the HeLa genome and that of normal human cells were revealed following the sequencing of the HeLa genome. Specifically, HeLa genome analysis revealed widespread abnormalities in chromosome number and structure, as well as factors commonly associated with cancer cells, such as gene loss. 
The take-home message here is that selecting an immortalized cell line for your research project to answer biological questions is not straightforward. There are many factors to consider during experimental design and analysis. Remember, immortalized cells are simply a model.
Selecting the right cell line for your work is key to getting the most reliable results. But with so many choices out there, how do you choose the right one? Our article on picking the perfect cell line for your research will hopefully put you on the right track.
What commonly used cell lines would you put in a Top 5 hit parade? Let us know in the comments section below.
More Info on Commonly Used Cell Lines
Not seen your favorite cell line here? Want to know how to get hold of a cell line or even generate one? Find out more in these related articles:
- Microglial Cell Lines: The Ultimate Guide to Selection
- The Culture of Primary Schwann Cells
- Where To Get Your Perfect Cell Line
- How to Become Immortal: Generation of Immortal Cell Lines
Originally published April 2017. Reviewed and updated October 2022.
- Vaughn JL et al. (1977). The establishment of two cell lines from the insect Spodoptera frugiperda (Lepidoptera; Noctuidae). In Vitro 13(4):213–17.
- Cox MM (2012). Recombinant protein vaccines produced in insect cells. Vaccine 27; 30(10):1759–66.
- Wurm FM (2004). Production of recombinant protein therapeutics in cultivated mammalian cells. Nature Biotechnology 22:1393–8.
- Ahsan A et al. (2009). Role of Cell Cycle in Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor Inhibitor-Mediated Radiosensitization. Cancer Research 69(12):5108–14.
- Shoemaker RH (2006). The NCI60 human tumour cell line anticancer drug screen. Nature Reviews Cancer 6:813–23.
- Thomas P, Smart TG (2005). HEK293 cell line: A vehicle for the expression of recombinant proteins. Journal of Pharmacological and Toxicological Methods 51(4):187–200.
- Joanna Moorhead. Henrietta Lacks: the mother of modern medicine. The Guardian. Published 23 June 2010. (Accessed 14 October 2022)
- Landry JM et al. (2013) The Genomic and Transcriptomic Landscape of a HeLa Cell Line. Genes|Genomes|Genetics 3(8): 1213–1224.