Measuring the primary cilium length: improved method for unbiased high-throughput analysis

Cilia. 2016 Feb 11;5:7. doi: 10.1186/s13630-016-0028-2. eCollection 2016.


Background: Primary cilia are cellular protrusions involved in mechanic and chemical sensing on almost all cells of our body. Important signaling pathways, including Hedgehog, TGFβ, and Ca(2+), are linked to cilia and/or cilia function. Cilia can vary in length, which has functional implications. To measure these lengths correctly, a standardized method with high reliability and throughput is required. To date, methods for length measurements in cultured cells after fluorescent staining for ciliary components are error prone with a possible human selection bias, primarily caused by the orientation of cilia with respect of the imaging plane. In tissue sections, accurate measurements become an even larger challenge due to additional random sectioning plane. Cilia can be reconstructed in 3D and measured one by one, but this is a labor-intensive procedure. Therefore, we developed a new, high-throughput method with less selection bias.

Results: To identify the optimal type of measurement of straight and relatively short cilia, three methods were compared. The first method is based on maximum intensity projection (MIP), the second method is based on the Pythagorean theorem (PyT), and the third is based on 3D alternative angled slicing (DAAS). We investigated whether cilia visible in the plane of focus ('flat cilia'), and the ones that are angled with respect to the plane of focus are represented differently among the various methods. To test the agreement between the methods, intraclass correlations are calculated. To measure flat cilia, MIP and DAAS provided representative results, with the MIP method allowing for higher throughput. However, when measuring the angled cilia with MIP, the actual cilium length is overtly underestimated. DAAS and PyT are exchangeable methods for length measurements of the angled cilia, while PyT exhibits higher throughput and is therefore the preferred method for measuring the length of an angled cilium.

Conclusion: PyT is a universal measuring method to measure straight cilia, without selection bias. MIP provides similar results for flat cilia, but underestimates the length of angled cilia. In addition, PyT facilitates high-throughput length measurements. Manual tracking or reconstruction will be the method of choice to measure irregularly shaped cilia.

Keywords: Cilium length; Measurements; Methods; Primary cilia.