A novel validation algorithm allows for automated cell tracking and the extraction of biologically meaningful parameters

Daniel H. Rapoport, Tim Becker*, Amir Madany Mamlouk, Simone Schicktanz, Charli Kruse

*Corresponding author for this work
33 Citations (Scopus)


Automated microscopy is currently the only method to non-invasively and label-free observe complex multi-cellular processes, such as cell migration, cell cycle, and cell differentiation. Extracting biological information from a time-series of micrographs requires each cell to be recognized and followed through sequential microscopic snapshots. Although recent attempts to automatize this process resulted in ever improving cell detection rates, manual identification of identical cells is still the most reliable technique. However, its tedious and subjective nature prevented tracking from becoming a standardized tool for the investigation of cell cultures. Here, we present a novel method to accomplish automated cell tracking with a reliability comparable to manual tracking. Previously, automated cell tracking could not rival the reliability of manual tracking because, in contrast to the human way of solving this task, none of the algorithms had an independent quality control mechanism; they missed validation. Thus, instead of trying to improve the cell detection or tracking rates, we proceeded from the idea to automatically inspect the tracking results and accept only those of high trustworthiness, while rejecting all other results. This validation algorithm works independently of the quality of cell detection and tracking through a systematic search for tracking errors. It is based only on very general assumptions about the spatiotemporal contiguity of cell paths. While traditional tracking often aims to yield genealogic information about single cells, the natural outcome of a validated cell tracking algorithm turns out to be a set of complete, but often unconnected cell paths, i.e. records of cells from mitosis to mitosis. This is a consequence of the fact that the validation algorithm takes complete paths as the unit of rejection/acceptance. The resulting set of complete paths can be used to automatically extract important biological parameters with high reliability and statistical significance. These include the distribution of life/cycle times and cell areas, as well as of the symmetry of cell divisions and motion analyses. The new algorithm thus allows for the quantification and parameterization of cell culture with unprecedented accuracy. To evaluate our validation algorithm, two large reference data sets were manually created. These data sets comprise more than 320,000 unstained adult pancreatic stem cells from rat, including 2592 mitotic events. The reference data sets specify every cell position and shape, and assign each cell to the correct branch of its genealogic tree. We provide these reference data sets for free use by others as a benchmark for the future improvement of automated tracking methods.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere27315
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - 08.11.2011


Dive into the research topics of 'A novel validation algorithm allows for automated cell tracking and the extraction of biologically meaningful parameters'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this