Chan Zuckerberg Initiative supports diversity in Human Cell Atlas project

Dr. Rui Chen

, professor of molecular and human genetics at Baylor College of Medicine, has been awarded a Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI) Seed Network grant to support diversity in the Human Cell Atlas project, an international effort to map all the cells in the human body. Chen’s work focuses on mapping the neural retina. The new grant will help ensure the cells being studied represent ethnically diverse donors.

“By including data obtained from diverse ethnic groups as part of the human retina cell atlas reference project, it will lay a critical foundation for our understanding of the contribution of genetic background to the health of human visual system,” said Chen, faculty member in the Program in Developmental Biology and member of the Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center at Baylor.

Chen’s project is in collaboration with Dr. Michael Mancini, professor of molecular and cellular biology at Baylor, Dr. Margaret DeAngelis with the State University of New York at Buffalo, Dr. Kirsten Frieda with Spatial Genomics and Dr. Wenyi Wang with the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

The project will establish a cell reference atlas of the human neural retina, build a high-resolution spatial map for all cell types in the retina and develop single-cell classification and integrative analysis software tools.

The prevalence of many common visual disorders differs significantly among ethnic groups, yet the molecular and cellular mechanisms underlying these differences remains elusive. To understand the genetic background of the cell types in the human visual system, this group will perform single-cell RNA-seq and ATAC-seq for retinae donated from female and male Black individuals. This new data will clarify differences in cell subtype composition, gene expression and pathway activity across ethnic groups and provide important insights to inform the development of targeted therapies.

“It is critical to include diverse tissue samples in the Human Cell Atlas so we can learn and grow from historical shortcomings and bias in genomics,” said Norbert Tavares, CZI program manager for Single-Cell Biology. “While this effort is only the start of addressing diversity in the Human Cell Atlas in the long term, these projects will serve as an initial pilot to surface future opportunities to more deeply address these challenges for the future.”

The CZI Seed Networks’ collaborative groups bring together scientists, computational biologists, software engineers and physicians to support the continued development of the Human Cell Atlas. Project participants are mapping specific tissues, such as the heart, eye or liver, in the healthy human body. The resulting cellular and molecular maps will be a resource for understanding what goes wrong when disease strikes.

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