Above, a white blood cell known as a T-cell.
Illustration: NIH (Flickr)

Scientists across the world are working together to make the most detailed map of the human body—one that will show how the tissues and organs of the body function and interact with one another on a cellular level.

In 2017, the National Institutes of Health announced it would be launching the Human BioMolecular Atlas Program (HuBMAP), a years-long initiative to develop an “open, global framework for comprehensively mapping the human body.”

Advertisement

According to the NIH, HuBMAP is meant to combine the latest imaging technologies with advances in sequencing the types of molecules that our bodies produce and are made of, all to create a three-dimensional road map of how our cells work. These molecules include the genetic material packed inside most every cell—the sum total of which is known as the genome—but they also include the unique proteins each cell is programmed to make, as well as a cell’s chemical byproducts or metabolites.

On Wednesday, the agency publicized the first set of grants to be given to research teams at various universities and institutions in the U.S. and elsewhere. One of these teams will be led by Ziv Bar-Joseph, a professor of computational biology and machine learning at Carnegie Mellon University.

“We have trillions of cells in our bodies, and each cell has a copy of the same DNA, but obviously, the brain does something different than the heart, or our lungs, and so forth. The difference is in what part of the genome each cell is using,” Bar-Joseph told Gizmodo. “But it’s only been the past few years that we’ve been able to look at the set of genes, or the set of proteins, or the set of components that each cell is using.”

Advertisement

In many ways, Bar-Joseph noted, the project is the spiritual successor to the Human Genome Project.

“We’re moving from 1D to 3D,” he said. “This is one of the next steps to really understanding human biology.”

In an ideal future, Bar-Joseph said, doctors would be able to use HuBMAP as a giant reference guide, allowing them to identify potential health problems in a person long before any physical symptoms show up.

Advertisement

Some of the NIH’s funding will be spent on speeding along the technologies that let us image and sequence the body’s cells in fine detail. Other grants will help scientists collect and study the cells and tissues of healthy volunteers who will serve as the baseline, reference humans for this map. But Bar-Joseph and his team are tasked with helping researchers make sense of the massive data these experiments will produce.

“If you want to map even a few thousand cells in the brain, that can create hundreds of gigabytes of data. And that’s one experiment for one location. So overall, the data for this is going to be huge—I mean, petabytes, maybe more. And now the question is, how do you deal with this data?” he said. “So our team is focused on the computational methods of this project.”

That will not only involve learning how to efficiently process, analyze, and extract important information from the data, but also creating interfaces for the eventual 3D maps that doctors and scientists can easily understand and interact with. Bar-Joseph’s team isn’t the only one at Carnegie Mellon to be involved in the project; another group will work on how to store this data and how to develop the tissue maps from it. The teams are funded under a $2 million NIH grant.

Advertisement

It will take until 2025 for the HuBMAP project to reach its final stages, according to the NIH’s proposed timeline, but Bar-Joseph hopes that we’ll be seeing initial mapping results as early as four to five years from now. The NIH expects to spend $54 million on HuBMAP over the next four years.

Another privately funded project, the Human Cell Atlas, is similarly trying to catalog all of the body’s 37.2 trillion cells. Earlier this year, researchers from that project released their first set of results, detailing the genetics of certain immune cells.