Engineering project to create ‘molecular portrait’ of every cell in the body

The Human Cell Atlas project is creating reference maps of every cell type in the body as a basis for understanding human health and treating disease.

Arjun Raj

According to Arjun Raj, an assistant professor of bioengineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, the field of biology has traditionally been about looking at the average properties of cells all at once, which can make it difficult to learn more about individual cells and how they’re different from one another.

“It’s almost like you took a bunch of fruit and put it in a blender and ended up with a smoothie,” Raj says. “A smoothie doesn’t really reflect any of the individual constituents, but we know that the individual constituents — for instance skin cells, liver cells, and muscle cells — are all different from each other.”

Rather than using the conventional approach of looking at the average properties of cells, the Human Cell Atlas, a project that Raj is a part of, is creating reference maps of every cell type in the human body as a basis for both understanding human health and diagnosing, monitoring, and treating disease. The project recently received 38 pilot grants, one of which covers Raj’s research, from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) Donor-Advised Fund, an advised fund of Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

“For hundreds of years, people have been classifying cells based on morphology, whether cells look different than others,” Raj says. “But in the last 50 years in molecular biology, we’ve been realizing that there’s this whole molecular viewpoint of cells, too. We take a picture of cells and we see these different shapes and so forth, but underlying that is the fact that we have a genetic code that gets read out differently in every cell. It’s like they have the same hardware but they’re kind of running different software on top of it.”

One of the goals of Human Cell Atlas researchers is to profile what gets read out of the genetic code differently across all the various cells. This data would allow them to come up with a “molecular portrait” of every cell type in the human body, which may lead to the discovery of new cell types.

“We could find new types of immune cells, skin cells, and all these different things that we all thought were the same because they kind of look the same under the microscope,” Raj says. “But now, using these new tools, we could potentially reveal hidden differences that we just didn’t know about before.”

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