The first major dataset from the Human Cell Atlas, a multi-year effort to catalogue the estimated 37.2 trillion cells of the human body, has been released.
The genomic data, available for download now, is from more than half a million immune cells.
'The immune system is deeply complex, involved in many diseases, and distributed throughout our body,' said Dr Monika Kowalczyk, a haematologist who led the experimental team at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 'This data set will be critical to help unlock its secrets.'
The data required the genetic profiling of 224,000 immune cells from bone marrow samples from four adult patients and 306,000 immune cells from the umbilical cord blood of newborns.
'Collecting and processing half a million immune cells was a Herculean feat, involving tightly coordinated teamwork across many areas of expertise,' said Dr Danielle Dionne, a member of the Broad Institute team.
The researchers made use of recent advances in computational methods to identify different cell types and determine the genetic fingerprint of individual cells. New techniques also allowed the team to locate where each cell resides within the human tissue based on its gene activity.
The data has been made freely available as part of a 185-project catalogue of the Human Cell Atlas. Eventually, the initiative aims to sequence DNA from 10 billion cells from all tissues, organs, and systems of the human body. The hope is that the Human Cell Atlas will create an incredibly detailed map of different cell types and their location in the body and the genetic activity within each cell, as well as revealing any as-yet unknown cell types.
'We will see some things that we expect, things we know to exist, but I'm sure there will be completely novel things,' said Dr Mike Stubbington, head of the Sanger Institute's team working on the Human Cell Atlas in the UK. 'I think there will be surprises.'
Ultimately, the atlas' goal is to describe and define the cellular basis of health and disease, and help to develop precision medicine treatments faster.