Single cell analysis a new technique
Single cell analysis enables scientists to do what was once thought impossible: study gene activity in an individual cell. Sten Linnarsson, Professor of Molecular System Biology specialising in Transcriptomics at the Department of Medical Biochemistry and Biophysics, uses the technique to identify cell types in the brain and to understand the systems that regulate our cells types in both healthy and cancerous tissue.
The brain’s grey and white matter actually consists of hundreds – perhaps thousands – of cell types. Nobody yet knows, but Professor Linnarsson intends to find out and has devoted much of his research to creating the single cell analysis technique needed to do so. Professor Linnarsson’s research group has been one of the international leaders in the field.
“When we started, there were maybe just a couple of groups in the world working on this,” he says. “Since then interest has gradually grown, to completely explode in just this past year.”
Single cell analysis allows the researchers to study the genes of an individual cell to understand how it works. Analysing such a small amount of material has never before been possible. In a recently published study in the scientific journal Science, Professor Linnarsson and his colleagues were able to show that only a tiny part of the mouse cerebral cortex contains 47 different types of cell, most of which are specialised neurons of one kind or other.
Understanding the processes
An important aspect of his research involves understanding the processes that give rise to these cell types under normal circumstances and in cases of cancer.
“My own research mainly concerns cell types in the brain, but single cell analysis is relevant to research on all organs,” says Professor Linnarsson.
As head of the new national facility for single cell analysis at the SciLifeLab in Solna, Professor Linnarsson helps other researchers use the technique in their own work. He and colleagues from Oxford have also identified exactly which cell type causes the blood disease MDS.
Text: Anders Nilsson, first published in Swedish in the booklet Från cell till samhälle 2015. Translation: Neil Betteridge.