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£3m funding for project to chart cellular diversity on Earth

11 January 2024

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The first phase of a project to map the diversity of cells found across multiple species has received funding of £3m ($3.8m USD) .

The Biodiversity Cell Atlas is an international project, similar to the Human Cell Atlas, with the potential to enhance our understanding of evolution, inform conservation, and provide new insights into cellular diversity and function.

Dr Irene Papatheodorou – Team Leader at EMBL-EBI and soon to be Head of Data Science at the Earlham Institute – will be providing expertise to ensure that the vast data from the Biodiversity Cell Atlas remains an open resource for the scientific community.

The cell is the fundamental unit of biology. Within multicellular organisms – be they plant, animal, or human – cells can display enormous diversity.

The goal of the Biodiversity Cell Atlas project is to understand the origins and functions of this diversity across the tree of life, thereby transforming our understanding of biology.

Cell atlases allow researchers to interrogate what each individual cell is doing at any given moment. Rapid advancements in sequencing technologies, such as single-cell RNA sequencing, have made creating cell atlases at scale possible.

There is no universal solution, however, for creating cell atlases across animal, plant, fungus or other lifeforms.

To address this challenge, a research group led by Arnau Sebé-Pedrós – ICREA Research Professor and Single Cell Genomics and Evolution Group Leader at the Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG) in Barcelona – has been awarded funding by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

The funding will allow the group to test and benchmark methodologies for profiling single-cell atlases in non-model organisms.

This will lay the groundwork for the ambitious work to chart the diversity of the different cell types on Earth – the Biodiversity Cell Atlas.

“Our planet has a vast living tapestry of cells, each with specialised functions and structures and a unique evolutionary story,” said Professor Sebé-Pedrós.

“This funding is a bold first step towards explaining each type of cell’s journey on Earth, knowledge that can illuminate how these foundational units of life have evolved over time and provide new insights into the functional diversity and interactions between organisms”

The project is a joint effort of different research communities that develop and apply single-cell sequencing technology to build cell atlases of model organisms, sequence genomes of a diversity of species, and compare single-cell genomics datasets.

To understand biodiversity at the cellular level, the Biodiversity Cell Atlas will create detailed maps of all the different types of cells in many different organisms similar to those created as part of the Human Cell Atlas initiative.

This requires collecting species in their natural habitat and finding ways of sequencing all the transcripts expressed inside each of these cells. Doing this at scale is a monumental effort requiring large-scale international collaborations.

One of the main hurdles of creating cell atlases for many different species is that scientists have yet to agree on a standard set of methodologies they can use to make comparing cell types across different species feasible in the first place.

After addressing this, the next big challenge to overcome is how to process and store the huge amounts of data generated and make these accessible to the scientific community.

Researchers at the Earlham Institute and EMBL’s European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI) will help to tackle the challenge of data analysis, integration, storage, and accessibility for the project.

“This work has immense potential to advance our understanding of cellular biodiversity,” said Dr Irene Papatheodorou.

“I will continue this work at the Earlham Institute, where we have a shared vision of creating a coordinated effort with EMBL-EBI to host and make these data from the Biodiversity Cell Atlas openly available to help accelerate research in this field.

“We are at the cusp of a new era in biological discovery, where open data and international collaboration will allow us to chart the rich mosaic of life at a cellular level.”

Standardised pipelines across the project will help ensure that everyone processes their data in the same way, enabling accurate and meaningful comparisons between studies.

The team will also create a comprehensive database for storing these cell atlases, fostering worldwide knowledge sharing and collaboration.

The creation of a Biodiversity Cell Atlas would have profound implications for many different areas, ranging from industrial applications and drug discovery to understanding the evolution of life.

Comparing cell types across species and life stages has already revealed important insights that the Biodiversity Cell Atlas can eventually support and expand upon.

This article was originally posted by our partner, the Earlham Institute, on their website here.

Image: Confocal microscopy image of a placozoa. Credit: Sebastian R. Najle – Centro de Regulación Genómica.

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