Pittsburgh Researchers Help Build A 3-D Map Of The Body's Cells And Genes

Oct 23, 2018

Researchers all over the world, including some here in Pittsburgh, are working on building a detailed, three-dimensional map of cells in the human body for a National Institutes of Health project.

The human body is made up of tens of trillions of cells, and the same set of genes is present in each of them. But cells are specialized – brain cells do different things than, say, lung cells – and the goal of the map is to paint a picture of the varying genes and proteins that are activated in each part of the body.

That's a lot of data that needs to be processed, according to Carnegie Mellon University Computational Biologist Ziv Bar-Joseph. He's leading a team doing just that.

"We're talking about terabytes, going into petabytes of data. One petabyte is one million gigabytes." Bar-Joseph said. "In order to really understand what the data is telling us, we need sophisticated computational methods."

Bar-Joseph said a human tissue map could help pinpoint the cause of disease at the genetic and cellular levels.

"For that, we need to have a reference," he said. "We need to have a map of what's the normal activity in most individuals and then we can identify what went wrong in people who have a specific organ or tissue or cell disease."

The Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center and the University of Pittsburgh are also participating in the project. Bar-Joseph said the NIH's goal is to have a functional draft map by 2022.

WESA receives funding from Carnegie Mellon University's School of Computer Science.