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Biological Chemistry

An atlas of the body

Human biomolecular atlas project reports on how cell types fit together in 3D

by Laurel Oldach
July 27, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 25


A multicolor image of a ring of cells around an artery cross-section. Most cells are labeled in magenta or blue; endothelial cells closest to the artery are cyan.
Credit: Greenbaum et al. Nature
In this antibody labeling mass spectrometry image of a cross-section of a spiral artery, which delivers blood to the placenta, different colors represent different cell-type markers. HuBMAP researchers are interested in how cell types fit together within tissues.

To understand biomolecules in context, researchers need to know where they are expressed and what they do in healthy tissues. But with roughly 37 trillion cells in a healthy human body, that knowledge can be hard to come by. One of numerous projects tackling this subject, the Human BioMolecular Atlas Program (HuBMAP), released its first tranche of results in July.

The hundreds of researchers in the HuBMAP consortium aim to map out the body at single-cell resolution by conducting spatial surveys of the biomolecules in every organ. In three articles published in Nature, they report on such surveys in the intestine, kidney, skin and placenta-endometrium junction.

Researchers used spatial transcriptomics, proteomics, chromatin accessibility sequencing, multiplexed immunofluorescence and other techniques to identify what they term neighborhoods within each tissue, where different types of cells live together. In many cases, they could collect several types of data from the same individual cell.

Additional articles in other Nature family journals describe new imaging techniques the consortium is developing, as well as the team’s approach to organizing and presenting terabytes of experimental data.

HuBMAP investigators collaborate with similar consortia such as the Human Cell Atlas, and the Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative but are more focused on how single cells fit into three-dimensional tissues, they explained in a press conference.

As the team accumulates more data, they hope to construct a set of anatomical coordinates, “like a latitude-longitude system for the healthy human body,” says Katy Börner of Indiana University, one of HuBMAP’s principal investigators. They also intend to collect more data on how aging alters healthy tissue.



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