“Inside the human body, roughly 37.2 trillion cells are working hard every day.” So begins the introduction of Cells at Work, an anime that turns complex medical concepts, scenarios, and organisms into interesting situations and characters. As a medical laboratory technologist who works with blood every day, my initial reaction to the series was irritation at the sense that my degree was being dumbed down by an anime—but after the initial burst of anger, I realized that the show is genuinely fun and endearing. More importantly, it’s incredibly accurate and goes into far greater detail than I anticipated. It’s got fans learning about the microscopic workings of the human body, but some might want to know more about the real-life stars of the show. Seeing as I work extensively with these little friends, allow me to introduce you to the true cast of Cells at Work.
Platelets: Tragically Short-Lived
Platelets are Cells at Work’s most popular characters by far. Chances are, you’ve already stumbled across a meme of these adorable clotting cells. But why are they portrayed as children?
Well, platelets are much smaller than red and white blood cells, so it only makes sense that their anime version would be shorter than normal cells. But platelets also only live eight or nine days in circulation—their young age in the show is a subtle play on this. There are no adult platelets because, honestly, they all die before they can become one. For reference, white cells live a few weeks and red cells live for about four months.
Red Blood Cells: The Incredible Shrinking Erythrocytes
Platelets aren’t the only kid cells we get a glimpse of—immature red blood cells are shown midway through the season. Upon “graduation” from the red bone marrow, a small pom-pom is removed from the red cell’s hat, signifying the loss of nuclei that red cells undergo as they mature. The show makes no mention of the white cells’ nuclei, but they definitely have them throughout their entire life.
Cells at Work also ignores the fact that immature red and white cells alike are much larger than their “adult” counterparts. As red cells grow up, they shrink and lose their nucleus, while white cells shrink and lose various intracellular components. Then again, it might be a little upsetting for the show to depict them as giant child children, so the change makes sense.
Basophils: The Brooding Purple Ninja
The anime’s interpretation of a basophil is a silly nod to its deep purple color under a microscope. Of course, when in your body, white cells aren’t actually white, orange, or purple. To appear that way, they’re spread thin onto a glass slide and stained with dye. Certain cells and components take up different stains with various intensity.
Basophils have large “granules” that take a dark purple dye. Its nucleus also absorbs this same stain, making the cell stand out in a slide as a large, dark blot. In Cells at Work, basophils definitely stand out too—they wear long trench coats and face masks, and philosophize about their very existence. Talk about “dark”—the show turns the basophil’s physical appearance into a personality trait.
Bacteria: Not Actually Sexy Skeletons
But of course, red and white cells don’t get all the attention in the show—bodily infections also get nods to their real-life inspirations. Staphylococcus aureus pops into episode two, and is responsible for “staph infections,” among many other types of common ailments. Cells at Work points out that it can cause “skin infections, food poisoning, pneumonia, meningitis, sepsis and the like.”
“Staphylo-” is a prefix designating that something is arranged in clusters, while “-coccus” is a prefix meaning “spherical.” Taking the name literally, cells of Staph. aureus are small, dark circles that are often seen in groups and clusters on a slide. This is actually really relevant to this character’s aesthetic—notice the gaggle of spheres all over her headpiece and dress.
Streptococcus pyogenes shares a very similar design philosophy. The show points out that this organism can live “in the throat, digestive organs, skin and the like.” What it fails to mention is that Strep. pyogenes is the bacteria that causes strep throat. Again, “-coccus” is means “spherical,” and “strepto-” is usually reserved for organisms that are in a chain. Strep. pyogenes, when looked at in a microscope, are purple, spherical organisms that are arranged in a long line. Notice anything interesting about the anime counterpart’s weapon? It’s literally a chain of purple streptococci!
Another species of streptococcus, Strep. pneumoniae, is shown in the first episode. While they appear similar, the two are separate classifications of streptococci. That’s why they look similar in many ways, yet use entirely different weapons and colors. Cells at Work mentions that the bacteria is “alpha-hemolytic,” which describes an early diagnostic clue for Strep. pneumoniae. When spread on a blood agar plate, the bacteria will create hydrogen peroxide that will oxidize the blood, making it look green. Beta and gamma hemolysis also exist and will turn blood plates different colors too. Those are used to help diagnose other bacterial infections.
Of course, Cells at Work oversimplifies some details and flat-out ignores others. For example, I would have loved to see the show discuss blood types and transfusion practices. It also introduces some concepts without fully explaining them, such as the alpha-hemolytic nature of Strep. pneumoniae. But I have to applaud the accuracy, sincerity, and effort the show puts forth. It’s—pardon the pun—infectious to see a piece of popular entertainment be this excited about biology. Cells at Work is bursting with facts about our own bodies, providing a truly entertaining learning opportunity for fans, students, and medical professionals alike.