Crowd sourcing to map the human body

K. S. Jayaraman

doi:10.1038/nindia.2019.61 Published online 16 May 2019

Manav Human Atlas

India is putting together a map of the entire human body – tissue by tissue – in a citizen science-styled effort that will pool publicly available data, primarily from published scientific literature, journal articles and databases.

Makers of the ‘Manav Human Atlas’ (‘manav’ is hindi for human), a computational representation of the human physiology, say it will ‘dramatically accelerate’ the understanding of how the body works and help design better therapies for treating diseases such as cancer and diabetes.

The Rs 120 million crowd sourcing effort was green flagged by India’s Department of Biotechnology (DBT) this week and hopes to spin into applications in tailor-made medicine as well as health forecasting.

Hundreds of science students from the undergraduate level upwards will be trained to collate, curate, manage and visualize available scientific information on the human body. "It is a great opportunity to connect biologists and bioinformatics students and researchers,” DBT Secretary Renu Swarup told Nature India. The project would not only generate huge amounts of data but also prepare an army of future scientists to identify gaps in biological knowledge and form the basis for fresh studies and policies.

Physiological data will be compiled both in the normal and diseased state of the human body. "This will provide easy access to curated scientific information and help researchers pursue biology deeper at the systems level," says Lingadahalli Shashidara, a developmental biologist at the Indian Institute Science Education and Research (IISER) Pune, one of the partners in the project. The virtual atlas is a collaboration centred in Pune with other partners National Centre for Cell Science (NCCS) and information technology company Persistent Systems.

Shashidhara says an important skill that the students will acquire during their training is reading and critically analysing research publications. "It will help them understand the processes of science and what is accepted or not accepted as scientific literature, thereby improving their analytical ability and critical thinking.”

Globally, scientists have access to the Human Protein Atlas (HPA), a Sweden-based programme that started in 2003 with the aim to map human proteins in cells, tissues and organs. A similar venture is the Human Cell Atlas, a three-dimensional map of how cell types work together to form tissues. But DBT sources say none of these projects aim to build the map of the whole human body simultaneously comparing both macro (organ/tissue/cell) and micro (molecular interaction networks) level details, a gap that the human atlas will fill.

"It is indeed an ambitious project, which when completed, would provide exciting information about the human body for the layman as well as for specialists," says Subhash Lakhotia, distinguished professor at the Banaras Hindu University in Varanasi. 

Lakhotia hopes the atlas does not meet the fate of other ambitious but unfinished big data projects launched by the Indian government, such as the ‘GenomeIndia’ initiative of 2017 to sequence the genomes of 10,000 Indians. However, biochemist Govindarajan Padmanaban of Bengaluru-based Indian Institute of Science, who also chaired the final committee to evaluate the GenomeIndia project, is optimistic. The genome project, aimed at identifying genes and genetic variations among Indians to enable precision medicine, is delayed not abandoned, he told Nature India. " It has now been revived and in the final stages of approval,” he said.

Senior evolutionary biologist Ramasamy Pitchappan says the success of the human atlas project will lie in gathering highly reliable data as well as infrastructure that enables the compilation of scientific literature from around the world. “Identifying health priorities and collating and interpreting data around them would be of utmost importance,” he adds.