Scientists unveil vast cell atlas that ‘deepens understanding of biology,’ opens doors to new treatments

There are three billion DNA letters in the genetic makeup of a human. With rare exceptions, each of the trillions of cells in our bodies carries an exact duplicate of the human genome. Organs like the kidney, lung, heart, and brain have distinctive cell types with specialized functions. These cells express only a particular subset of genes in the genome. Now, scientists are presenting a massive digital catalog called the Tabula Sapiens cell atlas, mapping these subsets of genes from 24 human tissue types and organs.

The atlas deepens understanding of normal biology and may indicate paths to new therapies. It was executed by the Tabula Sapiens Consortium, led by scientists at the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, an organization that focuses on developing new ways to enhance understanding of human health and disease.

The Tabula Sapiens cell atlas includes multiple tissues from the same human donors, with histological images of the tissues, and details of the microbial communities living in the various compartments of the gut.

“The quality and breadth of these data are unparalleled,” says senior author Stephen Quake, president of the CZ Biohub Network, in a statement. “This atlas will allow scientists to ask and answer questions about human health and disease that they’ve never been able to approach before.”

(Credit: CZ BioHub)

The Tabula Sapiens project brought together contributions from a wide range of experts, including surgeons and tissue specialists for each organ that was included in the study. “This effort really demonstrates how much potential we can unlock when we embrace the idea of team research,” says Tabula Sapiens Consortium member Angela Oliveira Pisco, Ph.D., associate director of Data Science for CZ Biohub’s Quantitative Cell Science team. 

Tabula Sapiens is accessible via a free, easy-to-use data portal, which offers links to all components of the multimodal atlas. 

An open-access, user-friendly tool called cellxgene (“cell-by-gene”), developed by CZI’s Science Technology group, enables scientists with no computational training to use Tabula Sapiens. The tool, built into the Tabula Sapiens portal, is already helping scientists tackle a variety of questions.

“Our cellxgene tool is helping scientists, like those in the Tabula Sapiens Consortium, answer fundamental questions about human biology in seconds, not years,” said Phil Smoot, head of science and technology and vice president of engineering at CZI. “We’re excited to see how other scientists will take advantage of this platform to further our understanding of human health and disease.”

The research is published in the journal Science.


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About the Author

Dr. Faith Coleman

Faith A. Coleman MD
Dr. Coleman is a graduate of the University of New Mexico School of Medicine and holds a BA in journalism from UNM. She completed her family practice residency at Wm. Beaumont Hospital, Troy and Royal Oak, MI, consistently ranked among the United States Top 100 Hospitals by US News and World Report. Dr. Coleman writes on health, medicine, family, and parenting for online information services and educational materials for health care providers.

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