Quantitative high-content/high-throughput microscopy analysis of lipid droplets in subject-specific adipogenesis models

Cytometry A. 2017 Nov;91(11):1068-1077. doi: 10.1002/cyto.a.23265. Epub 2017 Oct 14.


Neutral lipids packed in lipid droplets (LDs) are essential as a source of fuel for organisms, and specialized storing cells, the adipocytes, provide a buffer for energy variations. Many modern-society-disorders are connected with excess accumulation or deficiency of LDs in adipose tissue. Intracellular LD number and size distribution reflect the tissue conditions, while the associated mechanisms and genes rs are still poorly understood. Large-scale genetic screens using human in vitro differentiated primary adipocytes require cell samples donated from many patients. The heterogeneity appearing between donors highlighted the need for high-throughput methods robust to individual variations. Previous image analysis algorithms failed to handle individual LDs, but focused on averages, hiding population heterogeneity. We present a new high-content analysis (HCA) technique for analysis of fat cell metabolism using data from a large-scale RNAi screen including images of more than 500 k in vitro differentiated adipocytes from three donors. The RNAi-based suppression of Perilipin 1 (PLIN1), a protein involved in the adipocyte lipid metabolism, served as a positive control, while cells treated with randomized RNA served as negative controls. We validate our segmentation by comparing our results to those of previously published methods: We also evaluate the discriminative power of different morphological features describing LD size distribution. Classification of cells as containing few large or many small LDs followed by calculating the percentage of cells in each class proved to discriminate the positive PLIN1-suppressed phenotype from the untreated negative control with an area under the receiver operating characteristic curve of 0.98. The results suggest that this HCA method offers improved segmentation and classification accuracy, and can, thus, be utilized to quantify changes in LD metabolism in response to treatment in many cell models relevant to a variety of diseases. © 2017 International Society for Advancement of Cytometry.

Keywords: PLIN1 targeting; adipocyte tissue; digital image processing; feature extraction; high-content analysis; lipid droplets; segmentation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adipocytes / metabolism
  • Adipocytes / ultrastructure
  • Adipogenesis / genetics*
  • Cell Differentiation / genetics
  • Cell Size
  • High-Throughput Screening Assays*
  • Humans
  • Lipid Droplets / metabolism*
  • Lipid Droplets / ultrastructure
  • Lipid Metabolism / genetics
  • Microscopy
  • Perilipin-1 / genetics*


  • PLIN1 protein, human
  • Perilipin-1