In life cycle the biologic synchronous web that shape it is still a mystery, now a new avenue of research is open

Every plant, animal and fungus is made up of an intricate amalgam of cells. Each cell type has its own unique function, life cycle, and reaction to its environment. These factors, in aggregate, inform how living things live, the way disease manifests, and why we die.

Much of this synchronous web of biology is still a mystery: There’s so much we don’t understand about how individual cells work in tandem to keep a brain firing or a cancer metastasizing.

But scientists, using a powerful technology called single-cell sequencing, have begun to peel apart the precise mechanisms of how individual cells operate. By quickly analyzing thousands — even millions — of cells in a single experiment, it’s now possible to visualize the specific cellular culprits for any given disease.

Single-cell sequencing has tantalized scientists for several years

It was first described in 2009, and by 2013 earned the distinction of “Method of the Year” from Nature. Cost and technology hurdles initially kept its use at bay — but the field has begun to blossom as sequencing becomes more economical and bioinformatic analysis becomes more reliable.

Academics and drug makers alike are increasingly looking for ways to exploit this powerful new technology. Interrogating individual cells on their identity and purpose is turning up stunning new insights on basic biology — and providing rich fodder for drug discovery.

Standard genetic analysis techniques give us some insights, but they can be murky — not unlike population surveys. “Population surveys tell us the average American family has 1.2 children […]”.

Single-cell sequencing, by contrast, can indicate which family has six children, and which has just one.

“The value of single-cell sequencing, in this case, is the ability to look at how mutations work together to drive disease”.

Here’s how single-cell sequencing works

For example, a cancer biopsy is teased apart, and each of the thousands of cells is analyzed individually. From there, the cells are tagged with their own “barcode”. The cells can then be probed to check whether they carry a certain set of genes, or express specific molecules involved in disease pathogenesis.

In essence, instead of averaging the genetic profile of a tissue sample, this technique analyses each cell type individually, which might ultimately help clinicians know whether a therapy is tailored to target the specific cell types that have gone rogue.

But one disadvantage of this technique is that it still isn’t cheap, so an immediate challenge is to make it less costly, to be able to make its use more widespread.

The Human Cell Atlas project — an international effort to create a detailed taxonomy of every cell type in the human body — has helped raise the profile of single-cell sequencing. The project is funded in part by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the effort launched by Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan (see The Power of Sequencing Single Cell Genomes)


Though the initiative is still in its nascency, scientists are already unveiling intriguing new insights into basic human biology. (Excerpted and adapted from “A new Instruction manual for life” STAT, NOVEMBER 21, 2018. Biotech correspondent).