Communications between cells in large part drive tissue development and function, as well as disease-related processes such as tumorigenesis. Understanding the mechanistic bases of these processes necessitates quantifying specific molecules in adjacent cells or cell nuclei of intact tissue. However, a major restriction on such analyses is the lack of an efficient method that correctly segments each object (cell or nucleus) from 3-D images of an intact tissue specimen. We report a highly reliable and accurate semi-automatic algorithmic method for segmenting fluorescence-labeled cells or nuclei from 3-D tissue images. Segmentation begins with semi-automatic, 2-D object delineation in a user-selected plane, using dynamic programming (DP) to locate the border with an accumulated intensity per unit length greater that any other possible border around the same object. Then the two surfaces of the object in planes above and below the selected plane are found using an algorithm that combines DP and combinatorial searching. Following segmentation, any perceived errors can be interactively corrected. Segmentation accuracy is not significantly affected by intermittent labeling of object surfaces, diffuse surfaces, or spurious signals away from surfaces. The unique strength of the segmentation method was demonstrated on a variety of biological tissue samples where all cells, including irregularly shaped cells, were accurately segmented based on visual inspection.
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