Fat cells, so-called adipocytes, perform vital tasks in the human organism: they store energy and generate heat, cushion the skin and organs, and produce important hormones as well as semiochemicals and inflammatory mediators. Depending on body size and weight, every human being has between around 40 and 120 billion fat cells. They are only around 50 to 150 micrometres in size.
Human Cell Atlas comparable to Human Genome Project
Together with an international team, Professors Antje Körner and Matthias Blüher are now searching for adipocytes and mapping them three-dimensionally for the HCA project. “The Human Cell Atlas is a very ambitious and important project. It’s often compared to decoding the human genome. It is only by knowing which cells make up a healthy person and how they interact with each other that we can better understand and treat diseases associated with adipose tissue,” explains Professor Matthias Blüher, Professor of Molecular Pathogenesis of Metabolic Diseases at Leipzig University and head of the obesity outpatient clinic for adults at Leipzig University Hospital.
Researchers to determine genetic fingerprint of cells
Their project, Mapping the Human Adipose Tissue Cells and Intercellular Communication, was selected as one of 38 collaborative teams of scientists and now receives funding from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. In Israel, New Zealand and Leipzig, the researchers are investigating the adipose tissue of healthy women and men of different ethnic groups. They use the single-nucleus sequencing method, which makes it possible to obtain a kind of genetic fingerprint of each cell. This involves measuring the activity of messenger RNA (mRNA) molecules, which convey the genetic code. They provide information about which genes are actually active in the cell. “This information is very important to us. From these gene expression profiles we can deduce how too much, wrongly distributed and pathologically altered fatty tissue can contribute to diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and even some types of cancer,” explains Professor Antje Körner, Professor of General Paediatrics and Paediatric Research at the Faculty of Medicine and head of the Center for Pediatric Research Leipzig (CPL) at Leipzig University Hospital. They now have millions of cells ahead of them, and the project hopes to map the communication channels of each and every one of them.
About the Human Cell Atlas
The Human Cell Atlas was started by leading global scientists in October 2016. They want to map and characterise all of the cells in the healthy human body in three dimensions. The atlas also records proteins, genes and other molecules that are active in cells and are associated with certain diseases. It is intended to provide a comprehensive understanding of how cells communicate with each other and what changes occur when humans fall ill.
About the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative
The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) is funding part of the Human Cell Atlas project. The organisation was set up by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan in December 2015 with the aim of investing in improving human life and equality of opportunity. Priorities include supporting science through basic biomedical research and education through personalised learning.