At Ars Live, bioengineering professor Aaron Streets explains new cellular science.
Since 2016, a new version of that herculean effort is underway, known as the Human Cell Atlas.
Anyone who has taken high school or university-level biology can probably rattle off a handful of different types of cells—T-cells, neurons, skin cells, to name a few—that exist in the body. Textbooks routinely recognize hundreds of types, but there are undoubtedly more types and subtypes that have yet to be fully quantified and analyzed. The Human Cell Atlas, will aim to isolate and categorize the over 37 trillion cells that exist in everyone.
Hundreds of people at dozens of labs around the world, including at the University of California, Berkeley, are contributing to this effort. One of those researchers is Aaron Streets, an assistant professor of bioengineering. At the September 20, 2017 gathering of Ars Technica Live, Streets explained that he uses a relatively new technique, known as “microfluidics,” to perform sophisticated analysis on single cells.
Microfluidics is often analogized to microelectronics, which uses transistors to amplify or switch an electronic signal. However, rather than using electrons, these “labs-on-a-chip” use small amounts of fluid, taking advantage of the physical properties of how a fluid containing cells moves at a tiny scale. Simplified versions of microfluidic devices can also be used to test for certain things, such as a home pregnancy test or a swab at the airport designed to look for anthrax or other harmful substances.
Streets and his colleagues, however, use microfluidics to trap one cell, for example.
“We’ll take a single cell, like a human or mouse cell, and we’ll deliver it to a chamber, take a picture of it, and break it open and sequence all the RNA or DNA,” Streets said.
Doing this the “old-fashioned” way would be roughly the same as using a 1960s- or 1970s-era computer to perform a basic calculation—it would work, but it would just be significantly slower, more cumbersome, and very expensive.
“We’ve figured out a way to capture many cells, put them into isolated chambers, and break them open so we can sequence RNA from single cells,” he said. “That’s kind of a breakthrough that happened maybe 10 years ago. The ability to sequence RNA from one cell—it wasn’t possible until 2008. That enables you to get a quantitative of a picture of that cell.”
Knowing precisely how to quantify and define those cells contributes to the Human Cell Atlas, but it also contributes to a better understanding of how drugs can be more effective and how cancer treatments can more effectively target metastasizing groups of cells.
“The ultimate goal would be where you could zoom into any organ or tissue and figure out what cells are involved [and] understand what those cells do at any given moment,” Streets added.
For more from Streets, check out the full interview above in either video or audio form. And don’t forget to come to the next Ars Technica Live at Eli’s Mile High Club in Oakland, California, on October 18. You can also follow Ars Technica Live on Facebook.
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