What if you could "street view" the human body, navigating its interactive components all the way down to a metabolic level? An international group of scientists is working on that right now with a map of the human metabolism, which they call Recon 2.
Metabolism plays a key role in many diseases, and while scientists have already managed to reconstruct several models of it, each "represents only a subset of our knowledge" with "only partially overlapping content," the team writes in the journal Nature Biology.
"It's like having the coordinates of all the cars in town, but no street map," Bernhard Palsson, a professor of bioengineering at the University of California San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering and one of the authors of the paper, said in a statement. "Without this tool, we don't know why people are moving the way they are."
So they've been piecing together a high-quality reconstruction of the metabolism that is the most comprehensive to date, an upgrade from its predecessor, Recon 1. The idea is to eventually be able to browse the metabolic system as if using Google maps.
Enabling this kind of intra-network view of genes and their products -- enzymes, hormones, nutrients, etc. -- could give researchers an up-close view of a wide range of biological phenomena, including how diseases develop and which drugs cure them or stop them from developing in the first place.
Ines Thiele, one of the researchers out of the University of Iceland, writes that she envisions a future where doctors "develop virtual models of their patients' individual metabolic networks and identify the most efficacious treatment for various diseases, including diabetes, cancer, and neurodegenerative diseases."
Recon 2 more than doubles the number of metabolic transformations that Recon 1 mapped, covering 7,400-plus reactions.
By consolidating all this data into one tool, users can zoom in and out to observe metabolic functions at various levels, which could help reveal patterns that might not be obvious without the consolidated data.
"This is not unlike how you can get a street view of a single house or zoom out to see how the house fits into the whole neighborhood, city, state, country, and globe," the researchers write. "And just as Google maps brings together a broad set of data -- such as images, addresses, streets, and traffic flow -- into an easily navigated tool, Recon 2 pulls together a vast compendium of data from published literature and existing models of metabolic processes."
As impressive as it is, Recon 2 isn't close to fully mapping the human metabolism. It currently includes only 1,800 out of an estimated 20,000 protein-coding genes in the human genome.