National effort to focus on mapping human body on cellular level

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. –  How the human body’s trillions of cells are organized and interconnected and how they interact with each other are factors critical to good health, yet science does not understand the fine details of this intricate system.

The National Institutes of Health aims to tackle this complex problem by working to create a comprehensive map of individual cells throughout the entire body. The seven-year effort is called the Human BioMolecular Atlas Program (HuBMAP), a nationwide consortium of universities and research institutions. A paper describing the HuBMAP consortium is appearing on Oct. 9 in the journal Nature.

Purdue University is part of this effort, with a multidisciplinary research team led by Julia Laskin, the William F. and Patty J. Miller Professor of Analytical Chemistry. The team includes researchers from Marquette University and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

HuBMAP will harness the latest molecular and cellular biology technologies to study the connections that cells have with each other throughout the body. New and emerging technologies are making it possible to visualize high-resolution 3-D features of cells in tissues and to explore the organization of tissues at the individual cell level.

The Purdue-led team is one of the four HuBMAP “Transformative Technology Development Groups” tasked with developing advanced technologies for the research.

“We are developing novel technologies for the high-throughput imaging of hundreds of biomolecules such as metabolites, lipids, peptides and proteins in human tissues with high spatial resolution,” Laskin said.

These technologies will involve the use of ambient mass spectrometry imaging, a powerful technique that enables spatial mapping of different classes of biomolecules in biological systems without the need to attach “labels” such as dyes to tissues being studied.

“Because it does not require any special sample pretreatment, the method is particularly useful for high-throughput automated imaging applications,” Laskin said.

This project will combine several innovative approaches to address challenges associated with the high-throughput high-resolution ambient mass spectrometry imaging of lipids and metabolites using a technique called nanospray desorption electrospray ionization, and protein imaging using a “nanodroplet” processing platform also called nanoPOTS.

The human body contains an estimated 37 trillion cells, and the organization, specialization, and cooperation of different cells within specific tissues have a profound impact on tissue growth, function and aging. This complex interplay also might indicate the emergence of disease. Immune cells within tissues, for example, perform routine surveillance duties, and the ability to detect subtle changes in this activity would help signal the emergence of disease before symptoms are clinically detectable.

Information about the program and the HuBMAP consortium are available at and

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