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Human Skin Cell Biology and Disease Research at UCI Expands for The Human Cell Atlas Project

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In connection with UCI’s Skin Biology Resource Center, a UCI interdisciplinary research team received a three-year, $2 million grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative in November of last year. 

According to the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative website, the research team is using this grant to work towards constructing a skin cell atlas that will “help explain ancestral differences in skin biology and pathology.” The initiative, which was founded in 2015, aims to alleviate some of the toughest challenges presented in society, including science and education. With its contribution to this skin cell atlas, knowledge of all types of cells on human skin will be collected in a revolutionary new way. 

Like many of the current cell atlas projects underway, the team’s goal is part of a larger initiative: The Human Cell Atlas

Cells are important to every system that allows the human body to function, they are the basic building blocks of life. According to the Human Cell Atlas’ goals outlined here, cell biologists hope to expand and transform our current understanding of cells.

As a global project, this initiative aims to map “every single cell type in the human body.” Cell mapping refers to the process of finding a cell’s location within tissue or an organ. In this way, molecular information about the cell can be gathered and its functions and behavior with neighboring cells can be described. 

With over two thousand members, one thousand institutes and over 75 countries involved, this project will serve as a valuable source of information for health and disease, aiding disease diagnosis and treatment. 

In collaboration with professors from the University of Michigan, UCI professors Maksim Plikus and Qing Nie who teach development and cell biology, Bogi Andersen who teaches biological chemistry, Natasha Mesinkovska who specializes in dermatology, and Dara Sorkin who specializes in psychology and social behavior are working on the creation of the skin cell atlas at an ancestral level. This ancestral level, referring to the ancestors in one’s family, allows for the analysis of biological characteristics that have been inherited throughout a familial linaeage. 

Through a study including 72 adults of ages 18 and above, the principal investigators from both institutions will generate a skin cell atlas with networks “composed of gene expression and gene regulatory state data.” 

Gene expression is an important process that instructs DNA to create functional products in the human body, such as proteins. Gene regulation states allow for the control of gene expression. Here, both processes are fundamental in the functions of particular skin cell types, where these skin cell types will vary based on each individual’s ancestry. 

Researchers will be collecting samples from individuals of African American, Latinx, Middle Eastern and Asian backgrounds on developmental, anatomical and physiological distinct sites of the human body. 

While skin disease today can arise from factors such as skin pigmentation, the color of a person’s skin, skin thickness and hair texture, these factors vary among individuals who encompass different ancestries as well. Since these skin and hair characteristics have yet to be known, the skin cell atlas will also be useful in understanding new information about these particular body characteristics.

To learn more about this study and the five UCI and University of Michigan professors that are involved, visit the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative website.

Korintia Espinoza is a STEM Staff Writer for the winter 2022 quarter. She can be reached at korintie@uci.edu.