Cell culture is the process by which cells are grown under controlled conditions, generally outside their natural environment. After the cells of interest have been isolated from living tissue, they can subsequently be maintained under carefully controlled conditions. These conditions vary for each cell type, but generally consist of a suitable vessel with a substrate or medium that supplies the essential nutrients (amino acids, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals), growth factors, hormones, and gases (CO2, O2), and regulates the physio-chemical environment (pH buffer, osmotic pressure, temperature). Most cells require a surface or an artificial substrate to form an adherent culture as a monolayer (one single-cell thick), whereas others can be grown free floating in a medium as a suspension culture. The lifespan of most cells is genetically determined, but some cell culturing cells have been “transformed” into immortal cells which will reproduce indefinitely if the optimal conditions are provided.
In practice, the term "cell culture" now refers to the culturing of cells derived from multicellular eukaryotes, especially animal cells, in contrast with other types of culture that also grow cells, such as plant tissue culture, fungal culture, and microbiological culture (of microbes). The historical development and methods of cell culture are closely interrelated to those of tissue culture and organ culture. Viral culture is also related, with cells as hosts for the viruses.
The laboratory technique of maintaining live cell lines (a population of cells descended from a single cell and containing the same genetic makeup) separated from their original tissue source became more robust in the middle 20th century.