Single-cell genomics has now made it possible to create a comprehensive atlas of human cells. At the same time, it has reopened definitions of a cell's identity and of the ways in which identity is regulated by the cell's molecular circuitry. Emerging computational analysis methods, especially in single-cell RNA sequencing (scRNA-seq), have already begun to reveal, in a data-driven way, the diverse simultaneous facets of a cell's identity, from discrete cell types to continuous dynamic transitions and spatial locations. These developments will eventually allow a cell to be represented as a superposition of 'basis vectors', each determining a different (but possibly dependent) aspect of cellular organization and function. However, computational methods must also overcome considerable challenges—from handling technical noise and data scale to forming new abstractions of biology. As the scale of single-cell experiments continues to increase, new computational approaches will be essential for constructing and characterizing a reference map of cell identities.
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We thank E. Lander, A.K. Shalek, R.B. Fletcher, O. Ram, and D. Stafford for helpful discussions, and L. Gaffney and A. Hupalowska for artwork. A.W. and N.Y. were supported in part by the BRAIN Initiative grant U01 MH105979 from the US National Institute of Mental Health. A.R. is an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and was supported by the Klarman Cell Observatory at the Broad Institute, NIH grant P50 HG006193, Koch Institute Support (core) grant P30-CA14051 from the National Cancer Institute, NIH BRAIN grant 1U01MH105960-01, NCI grant 1U24CA180922, and NIAID grant 1U24AI118672-01.
A.R. is a member of the Scientific Advisory Board for Thermo Fisher Scientific and Syros Pharmaceuticals and a consultant for Driver Group. A.W. and N.Y. declare no competing financial interests.
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Wagner, A., Regev, A. & Yosef, N. Revealing the vectors of cellular identity with single-cell genomics. Nat Biotechnol 34, 1145–1160 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/nbt.3711
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