Mice are the quintessential research animals. Over decades, these unassuming creatures have played a role in almost every advance in modern medicine.
That’s why the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, the nonprofit medical research institute funded by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, has made the mouse its first focus.
Today the Biohub is launching Tabula Muris, an open-source database that details the biology of the average healthy mouse cell-by-cell, providing a potential gold mine for medical researchers. The database was developed in collaboration with Stanford University and the University of California at San Francisco.
A research paper detailing the project was published in the journal Nature. It’s the first such study to be published as a result of the Biohub’s work.
“We believe that this rich collection of annotated cells will be a useful resource for biomedical research,” the leader of the Biohub’s Cell Atlas project, Spyros Darmanis, said in a news release. “Through this project we uncovered gene-expression patterns that allow the identification of distinct cell types originating from a wide range of tissues across an entire organism, which can be used for cell selection, targeting and reprogramming.”
Because mouse anatomy and biology closely resemble that of humans, mice are commonly used as test subjects to study diseases and potential treatments. But understanding exactly what happens inside a test mouse, on a cell-by-cell basis, is extremely difficult.
To make the task a bit easier, Tabula Muris’ developers cataloged more than 100,000 cells from 20 organs and tissues, giving researchers an atlas that outlines almost every cell in a mouse’s body.
They hope that the database will help scientists understand exactly what happens when a mouse has, say, Alzheimer’s disease. By comparing the cells in mice with Alzheimer’s to healthy cells in the database, researchers could conceivably pinpoint the cause of the disease and identify specific ways to treat or reverse the condition.
Other potential targets are chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease, which along with Alzheimer’s are some of the deadliest and most expensive diseases in the U.S. The Biohub also named cancer and infectious disease as possible areas of research.
The project has similarities to the Allen Cell Types Database, developed Seattle’s Allen Institute of Brain Science. That project focuses on brain cells, while Tabula Muris catalogs cells from all over a mouse’s body. The Allen Institute plays a leading role in another project backed by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, known as the Human Cell Atlas.
Editor’s Note: This post has been updated to reflect Mark Zuckerberg’s relationship with the Biohub. He and his wife Priscilla Chan funded the Biohub through a grant. He did not co-found the institute.