The Digital Human Consortium is a fascinating Open Software attempt to construct computer simulations of genes and proteins, cells, tissues, organs and other systems of the human body. It is a natural outgrowth of extant research and production of artificial limbs and organs, and stands to grow over time in the same manner as the Internet itself grew, from different and often contradictory attempts to define how information is best represented.

Until recently, efforts to model and mimic human functionality have been enormously diverse and totally haphazard. For years scientists have researched and simulated biological constructs and events solely within the realms of their respective disciplines. Cardiologists built artificial hearts. Orthopedists constructed artificial joints. Endocrinologists, neurologists, psychologists and philosophers all built systems meant to aid them in their specific studies.

The Digital Human Consortium is an attempt to build a forum where diverse developers can share, test, and build upon each others' work. Redundancy in research will therefore be a thing of the past. The developers of a computerized heart model, for example, will be able to plug their software into a second group's lung simulation. The conjoined simulations would then interact meaningfully with a third group studying cardiovascular-respiratory interaction.

At the cellular level, computer models of molecules, cells and tissues would integrate in a hierarchy that would eventually effectively model the heart or the liver or the eye.

Obviously, a collaborative software development process is essential to the success of such a scheme. And it has been to the Open Software community that researchers have looked for guidelines. Mozilla has been cited for the success of numerous projects involving millions of lines of code and hundreds, if not thousands, of developers.

The engineering community has developed extremely ingenious approaches to the development of sophisticated architectures, and in the same way a modern aircraft or building is designed—integrating thousands of components, systems, and contractors—the Digital Human Consortium wants to design and build a Virtual Human Being.

Some of the essential building blocks of the project would include:

  • Developing a unified ontology that permits clear identification of components—from gross anatomy to the molecular structure of cells.

  • Defining human geometry so that components fit together properly, modeling physics accurately.

  • Defining models of physical motion and, importantly, deformation.

  • Defining chemical and electrical signal flows.

  • Defining material flows.

  • Defining chemical transformations, including gene expression.

  • Designing and operating user interface tools.

  • Creating applications such as teaching tools, research tools, and human factor models.

If I were a lad or a lass with a computer, a brain, and a desire to change the world for the better, I can think of few projects with more opportunities for gratifying, meaningful participation.

Every scientific discipline known to man, and not a few to which only God is privy, will be called into action to create the Digital Human.


Hecker, F. (1998). Setting Up Shop: The Business of Open-Source Software

Rosse, C., Mejino, J.L., Modayur, B.R., Jakobovits, R., Hinshaw, K.P. and Brinkley, J.F. (1998) Motivation and organizational principles for anatomical knowledge representation: the Digital Anatomist Symbolic Knowledge Base. J. Am. Med. Informatics Assoc.5.17-40.

Frank Hecker, "Lessons from Open Source Software Development:The Mozilla Experience," Proceedings of the Open Source Software Framework for Organ Modeling and Simulation Conference July 23-24, 2001

Robert Fulton, An Overview of Computer Aided Systems Design/Engineering Systems and Data, Proceedings of the Open Source Software Framework for Organ Modeling and Simulation Conference July 23-24, 2001

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