Autocorrelation analysis of a phenotypic screen reveals hidden drug activity

Sci Rep. 2024 May 2;14(1):10046. doi: 10.1038/s41598-024-60654-x.


Phenotype based screening is a powerful tool to evaluate cellular drug response. Through high content fluorescence imaging of simple fluorescent labels and complex image analysis phenotypic measurements can identify subtle compound-induced cellular changes unique to compound mechanisms of action (MoA). Recently, a screen of 1008 compounds in three cell lines was reported where analysis detected changes in cellular phenotypes and accurately identified compound MoA for roughly half the compounds. However, we were surprised that DNA alkylating agents and other compounds known to induce or impact the DNA damage response produced no measured activity in cells with fluorescently labeled 53BP1-a canonical DNA damage marker. We hypothesized that phenotype analysis is not sensitive enough to detect small changes in 53BP1 distribution and analyzed the screen images with autocorrelation image analysis. We found that autocorrelation analysis, which quantifies fluorescently-labeled protein clustering, identified higher compound activity for compounds and MoAs known to impact the DNA damage response, suggesting altered 53BP1 recruitment to damaged DNA sites. We then performed experiments under more ideal imaging settings and found autocorrelation analysis to be a robust measure of changes to 53BP1 clustering in the DNA damage response. These results demonstrate the capacity of autocorrelation to detect otherwise undetectable compound activity and suggest that autocorrelation analysis of specific proteins could serve as a powerful screening tool.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • DNA Damage*
  • Drug Evaluation, Preclinical / methods
  • Humans
  • Phenotype*
  • Tumor Suppressor p53-Binding Protein 1* / metabolism


  • Tumor Suppressor p53-Binding Protein 1
  • TP53BP1 protein, human