New cell atlases reveal untold variety in the brain and beyond

New cell atlases reveal untold variety in the brain and beyond

Yasemin Saplakoglu writes:

In the 16th century, the Belgian cartographer Abraham Ortelius created the world’s first modern atlas — a collection of maps that he called “The Theater of the World.” The maps, drawn by Ortelius and others, detailed what was at the time the best knowledge of the world’s continents, cities, mountains, rivers, lakes and oceans and helped usher in a new understanding of global geography.

Similarly, the creation of cell atlases — maps of organs and bodies constructed cell by cell — is heralding a new era in our understanding of biology. Powerful sequencing and imaging technologies invented in the last decade are revealing with unprecedented detail the composition of human organs and tissues, from the pancreas and liver to the placenta, as well as those of other animals like the mouse and fruit fly. With these new tools, researchers can fingerprint individual cells based on which genes they are expressing. That information has revealed subtle and unsuspected distinctions among cells and has begun to illuminate how the diversity of cell types can be essential to the healthy functioning of organs.

“We’re at this amazing point in time in science where we’re now able to understand the composition of these cell types,” said Steve Quake, a bioengineer and biophysicist at Stanford University who helped develop the technologies that make cell atlases possible. “It’s changed the way we understand how human biology works.”

Two cell atlas efforts, part of the National Institutes of Health’s $250 million brain cell census, that just released their findings illustrate the excitement bubbling up in the field. Today in Nature, a coalition of laboratories published nine studies that collectively form a detailed atlas of the mouse brain — the most comprehensive mammalian brain atlas to date. It describes more than 5,300 types of cells found throughout the organ. How these cells are distributed and are related to one another suggests many intriguing ideas about the evolution of the mammalian brain. [Continue reading…]

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