Atlas Shrugged

Don’t worry, this isn’t a commentary on Ayn Rand or her political philosophy!   I actually want to discuss atlases, because I love maps, and because they seem to be in vogue among Big Science initiatives.  The dictionary actually has a very quaint definition of atlas:  “a bound collection of maps often including illustrations, informative tables, or textual matter.”  Seriously, a bound collection?  Have our lexicographers never seen the internet (the US Library of Congress has over 28,000 digitized maps online)?


More specifically, I’d like to discuss some of the emerging “atlas” initiatives to characterize biological material.  (We’ll get to the “shrug” later in the post.)  Below is a partial list of several current atlas projects:

Virtually all of these aim to construct comprehensive, high-resolution, multidimensional, multi parametric atlases of normal and diseased tissues.  All of these efforts are being driven by amazing technological advances that allow unprecedented, deep molecular characterization at the single cell level, either in dissociated tissues or in situ (which should excite anatomic pathologists!).  Some of these efforts, such as HuBMAP and HTA are sponsored by the NIH and actually have funding available for technology development, etc.  Others appear to be data sharing consortia or data repositories.

So, back to the shrug (a gesture of doubt). Several of these initiatives acknowledge other, related atlas programs and claim a desire to synergize with them.  Time will tell how collaborative these programs will be and how successful they will be at avoiding redundancies.

A quick perusal of the involved investigators reveals relatively few pathologists.  Hopefully some of us pathologists will be motivated to participate and provide expertise!

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