Scientists Are Creating an Atlas of Human Cells

The Human Cell Atlas will boldly go where science, surprisingly, hasn’t gone before

Human blood contains red blood cells, T-cells (orange) and platelets (green) Zeiss Microscopy - Flickr/Creative Commons

Your body contains over 37 trillion cells that can be divvied up into hundreds of types. They’re the building blocks of the human body, but there’s no central place to look up the location, type and properties of each one—yet. As Ian Sample reports for The Guardian, a new project will map the cells that make up humans in a bid for faster scientific discoveries.

It’s called the Human Cell Atlas, and it could change the way researchers think about the human body. At a meeting in London last week, an international group of scientists laid out the initial development plans for the map, which will include a coordinated effort by labs all over the world to characterize the cells that make up every part of the body. The Atlantic’s Ed Yong compares it to “a Google Maps for the human body.”

This jump hasn't been possible until recently. Technological advances have finally allowed researchers to study and characterize individual cells instead of clumps of them. Called single-cell sequencing, scientists can separate out individual cells to examine their DNA, how they’re turned on, which molecules they produce, how they act under different circumstances and how they relate to other cells around them. As a result, a once blurry picture of the types of cells in the human body is becoming sharper and sharper, revealing an increasing number of types of cells and allowing for a more nuanced view of disease, health and human physiology.

Once it’s complete, the database will be free to scientists all over the world. But as Reuters’ Kate Kelland writes, it will likely take a decade to complete. MIT’s Broad Institute and Britain’s Sanger Institute and Wellcome Trust are spearheading the project. Their first priority is to complete a pilot project that will lay out a kind of road map for creating the final database—a white paper that will define the required steps to build the atlas and the best sampling technique and analysis methods.

Along the way, there will doubtless be plenty of surprises and new discoveries. Already, single-cell studies are revealing new information about how autism affects the brain and how T-cells mobilize the immune system. (Check out Yong’s article for an in-depth explanation of the technology that’s making those discoveries possible.)

Think of the scientists setting out on the journey to map the body’s cells as brave explorers preparing for a long voyage. The end result will help science for years to come, but the journey itself is likely to be just as thrilling.

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