How many types of cells are there in the human body? Textbooks say a couple of hundred. But the true number is undoubtedly far larger.
Piece by piece, a new, more detailed catalogue of cell types is emerging from labs like that of Aviv Regev at the Broad Institute, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which are applying recent advances in single-cell genomics to study individual cells at a speed and scale previously unthinkable.
The technology applied at the Broad uses fluidic systems to separate cells on microscopic conveyor belts and then submits them to detailed genetic analysis, at the rate of thousands per day. Scientists expect such technologies to find use in medical applications where small differences between cells have big consequences, including cell-based drug screens, stem-cell research, cancer treatment, and basic studies of how tissues develop.
Regev says she has been working with the new methods to classify cells in mouse retinas and human brain tumors, and she is finding cell types never seen before. “We don’t really know what we’re made of,” she says.
Other labs are racing to produce their own surveys and improve the underlying technology. Today a team led by Stephen Quake of Stanford University published its own survey of 466 individual brain cells, calling it “a first step” toward a comprehensive cellular atlas of the human brain.