Chan Zuckerberg Initiative Offers Funding, Engineering Help To Human Cell Atlas

June 1, 2017

By Bio-IT World Staff

June 1, 2017 | The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) has announced financial support for the Human Cell Atlas, which is using sequencing technology to redefine every cell in the body. Funding and engineering support from CZI will enable EMBL-EBI, the Broad Institute, and the University of California Santa Cruz Genomics Institute (UCSC) to set up an open, cloud-based Data Coordination Platform to check, share, and analyze the vast amounts of diverse information generated.

The New Anatomy

Molecular biology has advanced so far and fast in the past two decades that scientists believe it’s time to rethink human anatomy, starting from the smallest unit: the cell. The Human Cell Atlas, led by the Broad Institute and Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, aims to do just that by creating a new, open, accessible reference map of the healthy human body.

“Anatomy textbooks as they are now were designed by assigning meaning according to how things look and function. Now, we’re using molecular tools to characterize what’s going on in organs and tissues, and to get a deeper view of anatomy. That’s the Human Cell Atlas,” explains Dr John Marioni, Research Group Leader at EMBL-EBI, and EMBL-EBI lead on the Data Coordination Platform steering group, in a press release.

EMBL-EBI is the first recipient of CZI funding outside the US, and will contribute its experience coordinating large-scale, open science initiatives, and will build the new data-sharing and analysis platform collaboratively using modern cloud-based technologies.

This international collaboration is using RNA sequencing technology to define cells in a whole new way. Such a highly specific, sequencing-based reference of healthy human function will be transformative for biomedical research.

One thing is certain: it will mean a lot of data. 

Transparency And Transformation

“The scale of the Atlas will be in the tens of millions of datasets,” says Dr Sarah Teichmann, Head of Cellular Genetics at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and joint leader of the Human Cell Atlas, in the same statement. “Interoperability and transparency are essential for keeping so many moving parts working – we know this from our long experience collaborating with one another. We’ve designed the data architecture as open-source and modular from the get-go. That will make it easier for others to use and add to the Atlas in the future.”

The new cloud-based pipeline will allow Human Cell Atlas partners to upload their datasets, analyse them jointly, and compare healthy and diseased tissues meaningfully. It will shift life-science collaboration toward cloud technologies including Open Stack, Google and Amazon Web Services.

“The size and scope of this new data platform will require large-scale collaborations between informatics and genomics experts across academia and industry,” said Cori Bargmann, president of science at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative in the press release. “That is why we are thrilled to bring together three of the world’s leading institutions in genomics, informatics, and data sharing to build this important new resource—and our own software engineers will help develop the tools and facilitate the collaboration. It is a great example of how we can help accelerate science by supporting collaborations across institutions and by bringing scientists and engineers together in new ways.”