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Biology’s Most Ambitious Map Yet: The Human Cell Atlas

Published in Scanners and Imaging.

For more than two decades, using twin telescopes pointed skyward, scientists have been mapping the universe. From the outset, the trove of data they collect has been available to the scientific community and the public, fueling discovery and revolutionizing astronomy globally. Just last year, for example, the most comprehensive reference map of the cosmos was published, capturing images of more than three million stars and galaxies and spanning a mind-boggling 11 billion years of cosmic history.

Today, an equally ambitious effort is underway to map the wonders within us — the myriad of cells in the healthy human body. Known as the Human Cell Atlas (HCA), the project aims to create an open, shareable reference atlas of our cells, the building blocks of life. Its ultimate goal is to enhance our understanding of health and improve our ability to diagnose, monitor, and treat disease. After all, the roots of disease lie in our cells; observing the human body at this fundamental level has the potential to clarify all diseases.

Launched in 2016, the HCA is an international community of scientists focused on identifying and characterizing cells in different tissues, organs, and organ systems, including organs like the heart, lung, and kidney; and the reproductive, nervous, and immune systems. CZI was one of the first supporters of the HCA. Our focus has been on funding collaborative research teams that are developing new methods and generating data to accelerate progress toward a first draft of this cellular map.