The tissues in our bodies are complex systems composed of diverse cell types that often interact in highly structured repeating anatomical units. External gradients of morphogens, directional blood flow, as well as the secretion and absorption of materials by cells generate distinct microenvironments at different tissue coordinates. Such spatial heterogeneity enables optimized function through division of labor among cells. Unraveling the design principles that govern this spatial division of labor requires techniques to quantify the entire transcriptomes of cells while accounting for their spatial coordinates. In this review we describe how recent advances in spatial transcriptomics open the way for tissue-level systems biology.
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