It may have been a momentous achievement in itself, but the mapping of the human genome was always intended as the launchpad for scientific discovery not an endpoint.
Now scientists are making true on that promise by taking the art of human cartography to the next level: committing to mapping every single cell type in the human body.
Dr. Katrina Gold of the Wellcome Trust, which is injecting £7 million GBP ($8.95 USD) into the project, said the Human Cell Atlas was critical to developing a deeper understanding of the genome’s role in instructing cells to carry out their functions in the body.
The global initiative to define the cell types in the human body would provide “a window into the highly dynamic ‘inner lives’ of individual cells,” she said.
“It’s the equivalent of a new microscope: scientists can analyze single cells in greater detail, and in greater number, than ever before.”
Wellcome’s funding will support an interdisciplinary team of scientists and researchers across six U.K. institutions: the Wellcome Sanger Institute, the EMBL-European Bioinformatics Institute, Newcastle University, the University of Cambridge, King’s College London, and the University of Oxford.
“This award will support experts in genomics, computational biology, cell and developmental biology, and medicine at six different U.K. research institutions,” explained Dr. Gold. “Together, they will build the Human Cell Atlas, in collaboration with international partners around the world.”
Scientists from the U.K. will be joined by their colleagues at such institutions as the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in the United States, RIKEN in Japan and the Karolinska Institute in Sweden in developing the Human Cell Atlas. The multidisciplinary team includes computational scientists, software engineers, and mathematicians.
Scientific understanding of cell functionality remains limited. Researchers believe a deeper understanding of the human cellular system could spur new diagnostic approaches and treatments to addressing health and disease.
The data arising from the project, initiated in 2016, will be open for scientists and researchers anywhere to access.
“The HCA is such a huge endeavor that it wouldn’t be possible by any single organization, or indeed any single country,” remarked Sarah Teichmann, head of cellular genetics at the Wellcome Sanger Institute.