Background: The "thrashing assay", in which nematodes are placed in liquid and the frequency of lateral swimming ("thrashing") movements estimated, is a well-established method for measuring motility in the genetic model organism Caenorhabditis elegans as well as in parasitic nematodes. It is used as an index of the effects of drugs, chemicals or mutations on motility and has proved useful in identifying mutants affecting behaviour. However, the method is laborious, subject to experimenter error, and therefore does not permit high-throughput applications. Existing automation methods usually involve analysis of worm shape, but this is computationally demanding and error-prone. Here we present a novel, robust and rapid method of automatically counting the thrashing frequency of worms that avoids morphometry but nonetheless gives a direct measure of thrashing frequency. Our method uses principal components analysis to remove the background, followed by computation of a covariance matrix of the remaining image frames from which the interval between statistically-similar frames is estimated.
Results: We tested the performance of our covariance method in measuring thrashing rates of worms using mutations that affect motility and found that it accurately substituted for laborious, manual measurements over a wide range of thrashing rates. The algorithm used also enabled us to determine a dose-dependent inhibition of thrashing frequency by the anthelmintic drug, levamisole, illustrating the suitability of the system for assaying the effects of drugs and chemicals on motility. Furthermore, the algorithm successfully measured the actions of levamisole on a parasitic nematode, Haemonchus contortus, which undergoes complex contorted shapes whilst swimming, without alterations in the code or of any parameters, indicating that it is applicable to different nematode species, including parasitic nematodes. Our method is capable of analyzing a 30 s movie in less than 30 s and can therefore be deployed in rapid screens.
Conclusion: We demonstrate that a covariance-based method yields a fast, reliable, automated measurement of C. elegans motility which can replace the far more time-consuming, manual method. The absence of a morphometry step means that the method can be applied to any nematode that swims in liquid and, together with its speed, this simplicity lends itself to deployment in large-scale chemical and genetic screens.