Funding boost for initiative mapping entire human body


The MRC, part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), is investing £6.7 million to support the UK’s contribution to mapping every cell type in the human body, through the global Human Cell Atlas initiative.

It is part of three new major bioscience initiatives, with £55 million of funding, announced this week by Life Sciences Minister Lord Henley.

To understand disease, we first need to understand what normal, healthy cells look like, both during our development and when we’ve stopped growing. That’s the aim of the global Human Cell Atlas: an ambitious collaboration planning to identify and locate every type of cell in our bodies using cutting-edge gene expression and imaging technology.

A better understanding of how our bodies work in health and disease will also open new routes for diagnosing, monitoring and treating disease.

This MRC-led Strategic Priorities Fund investment has enabled 13 awards to be made to researchers at universities across the UK for studying single cells, in different organs across the body.

This month, the research groups will begin projects to analyse healthy human tissues from the earliest stages of development through to adulthood and old age, to reveal exciting insights into the changes in biological function as our cells and tissues develop.

Three additional underpinning investments will provide the foundations for the tissue analysis awards and support the UK’s continued involvement in the Human Cell Atlas. These investments include the establishment of new specialist training programmes in data analytics that are essential to the success of the Human Cell Atlas and advancing the UK’s capabilities in cutting-edge quantitative cell biology.

Partnerships with the European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI) will ensure the effective coordination and curation of data to make it accessible to researchers across the world.

By investing early, during the development phase of the Human Cell Atlas initiative, we hope to help establish the UK as a key partner in this global endeavour and lay the foundations for further collaborative activities.

The programme will be MRC-led, with a contribution from the British Heart Foundation (BHF), and delivered as part of UKRI’s Strategic Priorities Fund. The Strategic Priorities Fund supports high-quality, multi and interdisciplinary research and development priorities.

Commenting on the investment, MRC Executive Chair Professor Fiona Watt said: “The Human Cell Atlas will be a comprehensive map of all cells in the body. It will potentially have as great an impact on human health as the Human Genome Project. I am therefore delighted that the MRC and our partners at BHF are supporting such a diverse range of projects”.

The 13 awards to research groups:

  • A cell atlas of the human outflow tract of the heart; Professor Nicoletta Bobola, University of Manchester – jointly funded by the BHF and the MRC
  • The Joint Atlas: A cellular map of key anatomical structures in the human synovial joint during development and in healthy adults; Professor Christopher Buckley, University of Oxford
  • Defining regional anatomical variation in cellular composition, transcriptome and epigenome in the human kidney; Dr Menna Clatworthy, University of Cambridge
  • scEye-Map: Developmental trajectories of progenitor cell populations in the human eye at single cell resolution; Professor David FitzPatrick, University of Edinburgh
  • A protein-transcriptome atlas of haematopoiesis across the human life span; Professor Bertie Gottgens, University of Cambridge
  • Decoding cell lineages in human oesophagus, stomach and duodenal development for the Human Cell Atlas and to understand disease; Professor Neil Hanley, University of Manchester
  • The thymus stromal compartment across developmental stages: Determining single cell transcription, chromatin accessibility and spatial position; Professor Georg Holländer, University of Oxford
  • Charting cellular changes in the human breast associated with embryogenesis, parity, age, menopause and germline mutations; Dr Walid Khaled, University of Cambridge
  • Understanding the molecular and cellular complexity of human cornea through single cell analyses; Prof Majlinda Lako, Newcastle University
  • Human Lung Cell Atlas Project: genetic regulation of foetal and healthy adult lung cell states in 3D spatial resolution; Dr Emma Rawlins, University of Cambridge
  • Definition of human intestinal mesenchymal origins and of mesenchymal epithelial cross-talk in health and disease; Professor Alison Simmons, University of Oxford
  • Cell atlas of the human female reproductive system across the lifespan; Dr Sarah Teichmann, Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute
  • How heterogeneous are oligodendroglia from normal human brain and spinal cord?; Professor Anna Williams, University of Edinburgh.

The three underpinning investments supporting the UK’s continued involvement in the Human Cell Atlas initiative:

  • The European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI) in Cambridge will build a Data Coordination Platform to enable the data emerging from the awards to be built into the Human Cell Atlas.
  • EMBL-EBI will deliver training courses in single-cell analysis to develop national skills and capability in this cutting-edge technology.
  • The Human Developmental Biology Resource, based at University College London and Newcastle University and funded by the MRC and Wellcome, will receive additional funds to provide human developmental tissue for analysis.

Image Credit: Steve Winder, CC by NC


The Medical Research Council has been at the forefront of scientific discovery to improve human health. Founded in 1913 to tackle tuberculosis, the MRC now invests taxpayers’ money in some of the best medical research in the world across every area of health.

MRC [Medical Research Council]