Researchers have launched the Human Cell Atlas, a 10-year project every bit as ambitious as the Human Genome Project, which spent over a decade deciphering the entire human DNA sequence. This latest venture aims to map every single one of the trillions of cells that make up the human body, and the overall goal is to describe every cell type across all tissues and organs to produce a reference map of a healthy human body.
An international group of institutions will work together to tease apart what exactly all cells are doing, and what makes them distinctive. It is currently thought that there are about 35 trillion cells divided into roughly 200 different types. These all come together in differing ways to form all your organs, from your kidneys, brain, and lungs, as well as making up the immune system and muscles. But this figure is almost certainly wrong, and the Human Cell Atlas aims to find out by exactly how much.
“The Human Cell Atlas initiative is the beginning of a new era of cellular understanding as we will discover new cell types, find how cells change across time, during development and disease, and gain a better understanding of biology,” explains Dr Sarah Teichmann, from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, one of the leading organizations of the project.
A project of this scale was unthinkable even just a few years ago. But new technological advances mean that individual cells can be separated out, and what molecules they produce, deciphered. These will include pieces of RNA messages, known as transcriptomes. Every cell produces its own unique set of transcriptomes, which can be accurately used to distinguish the identity of one cell from another.
The scientists hope that the endeavor will enable them to track the development of humans as they grow, as well as monitoring diseases such as cancer. The project is expected to take around 10 years to complete, and once done will be free to access by scientists around the world. It is expected that when it is finished it will be an invaluable tool to a whole host of people, from doctors and clinicians to researchers, contributing to research in an innumerable number of fields.
“We believe that a successful description of all the cells in the healthy human body will impact almost every aspect of biology and medicine in the decades to come,” said Dr Aviv Regev, from the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which along with Havard, the Sanger Institute in Cambridge, and the Wellcome Trust, will be leading the new project.