Late at night, in a California hospital, a brain-dead patient was being prepared to offer the ultimate gift. That May evening in 2019, she would be taken off her ventilator, and many of her organs and tissues — everything from the bladder to the lungs to muscle — would be donated to a unique project led by the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub.
Many patients and their families choose to support scientific research with their bodies after passing. But this gift in particular would require immense logistical precision. The Biohub project, called Tabula Sapiens, aims to create an atlas of single-cell gene expression that, unlike most existing databases, contains sequences from a single donor’s cells. That approach allows scientists to control for factors like genetic inheritance, age, epigenetics, and environment — but it also means every organ needs to be collected and preserved simultaneously, as soon after death as possible. Wait too long, and the delicate RNA within their cells will begin to degrade, destroying evidence of the work they were doing in the once-living body.