Scientists Developing 3D Human Body Map Detailed Down To Individual Cells and Genes

Scientists Developing 3D Human Body Map Detailed Down To Individual Cells and Genes

Even a decade ago it would have been hard to imagine the level of detail that Google Maps now represents. Especially in an urban environment, users can zoom right into street view and roam around an area almost as though they are actually standing on the street. Google Sky is arguably an even more impressive mapping project:

“You can find the positions of the planets and constellations on the sky and even watching the birth of distant galaxies as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope.

We are particularly excited about the ability to view the universe at different wavelengths, to see how it would look if our eyes worked in the x-rays or infrared. As you explore these new layers, play with the transparency to blend between the different wavelengths and see how different parts of the universe light up at different wavelengths”.

But scientists around the world, led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have embarked on a mapping project even more impressive – the human body right down to the cellular level. The project, which involves scientists around the world, will, completed, be at least as impressive as the mapping of the human genome – our DNA. The project is to develop a 3D map of the human body so granularly detailed that it will be possible to zoom down to the microscopic level of individual cells and genes.

The map of the human body will mean scientists and researchers can do things like comparing healthy organs, tissues and cells with diseased ones. This will allow them to see what conditions including cancer, heart disease and arthritis look like on a cellular level in a living human body. This will, potentially, offer real insight into how these conditions begin. The map should unveil the very first tell-tale signs something is different in cells and genes.

Building the map involves scientists studying closely the approximately 30 trillion cells that make up a typical human body. That, it is hoped, will allow for the identification of exactly how many cell types there are.

It is believed that the human body contains around 200 different groups of cell type, most of which have a diameter of around 0.1 mm. However, these ‘parent’ groups of cell types, such as neurons, skin cells, muscle cells, blood cells, heart and brain cells etc. have numerous ‘sub-types’.

Right now, we have limited understanding of just how many sub-types of cells there are in our bodies and exactly what the differences between them in and affect how they behave. Both individually and in relation to and combination with other kinds of cells.

The map of the human body, named the Human Cell Atlas, aims to change that. As explained to the American Association for the Advancement of Science by Professor Regev, a scientist based between the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, who is working on the project:

“The global Human Cell Atlas initiative will create a 3D reference map charting every cell type in the human body.”

“Using breakthrough single-cell and imaging technologies, this ‘Google Map of the body’ will allow us to zoom in on organs, tissues and cells, transforming our understanding of how our cells function and how our body works.”

Compiling the atlas has been made possible by a cutting edge new technique called single-cell trasnscriptome sequencing. Each cell is examined, one at a time, and its messenger molecules detailed. These messenger molecules are what carry the instructions sent by the particular cell to its protein-making components. The messenger molecules are made by genes being transcribed into RNA – a DNA-like chemical.

The difference between DNA and RNA is that the DNA of every cell in an organism is approximately the same. RNA, on the other hand, differs between cells because different sections of the DNA are actively transcribed. The RNA determines what proteins an individual cell produces, in turn defining its specific function. Identifying and counting the RNA messengers an individual cell produces shows what kind of cell it is.

The human body atlas project will also involve a UK-based arm, which is to be led by the Wellcome Sanger Institute. The Institute, located south of Cambridge is renowned as one of the world’s leading centres of genomic science. It has been tasked with the analysis of individual cells and their components, creating a clear picture of how they look when healthy and the changes undergone when diseases and conditions begin to develop.

Shannon Hughes, who works at the National Institutes of Health, an organisation that supports other connected projects including the Human Biomolecular Atlas and the Human Tumour Atlas Network, believes these atlases, and the cellular atlas currently being worked on, could lead to new levels in our understanding of the human body. The hope is that will, in turn, result in breakthroughs and new treatments for diseases such as cancer.

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