Scientists are looking for collaboration on building an international human cell atlas project, which would include researchers from core biological science to computational science.
Aviv Regev, a computational and systems biologist, a professor of biology at MIT and Sarah Teichmann, head of cellular genetics at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Hinxton, UK, are now co-leaders of the Human Cell Atlas Project, with an aim to unravel the complexity of gene traffic in individual cells, how those networks differ and, ultimately, how diverse cell populations work together.
In co-coordinating the Human Cell Atlas project, Regev has wrangled a committee of 28 people from 5 continents and helped to organize meetings for more than 500 scientists.
It has been unclear how the project would find funding for all its ambitions. But in June, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative — the philanthropic organization in Palo Alto, California, that funds the Biohub — contributed an undisclosed amount of money and software-engineering support to the Human Cell Atlas data platform, which will be used to store, analyse and browse project data.
Few of the points are not clear which leads to some scientists worry that the atlas will drain both funding and effort from other creative endeavours.
Developmental biologist Azim Surani at the University Of Cambridge, UK, says, with this Human Cell Atlas project, will have a broad picture rather than a deeper understanding of what the different cell types are” and the relationships between them. Also extracting single cells from tissue without getting a biased sample or damaging the RNA inside — is still very difficult. “Has the technology reached maturity so that you’re making the best use of it?” he asks.
Uhlén, who is director of the Human Protein Atlas — an effort to catalogue proteins in normal and cancerous human cells that has been running since 2003 says, there may be a nearly infinite number of cell types to characterize. Uhlén says that the Human Cell Atlas is important and exciting, but adds: “We need to be very clear, what is the endpoint?”
The aim is to unpick genetic pathways very precisely, on a much larger scale than has been possible before, by switching off one or more genes in each cell, then assaying how they influence every other gene.
The answers to such questions would reveal, in essence, how complex organisms such as humans are built and to map how all those cells and their molecules are spatially organized.
The project also aims to discover and characterize all the possible cell states in the human body — mature and immature, exhausted and fully functioning — which will require much more sequencing.