Basics in Confocal microscopy and image analysis

Nowadays, confocal microscopy is possibly the most widely used optical method in biological research. This methods creates better (and prettier) images than widefield microscopy (whether transmitted light or epifluorescence). The main advantages of confocal vs. widefield microscopy is the elimination of out-of-focus glare (thus increasing resolution and increasing signal-to-noise ratio) and the ability to collect serial optical sections of the specimen (z-sections).

The basic configuration of the optics is similar to that of the epifluorescnece microscope. The addition that created the confocal microscope, invented by Marvin Minsky in 1955, was to add two pinholes. The light produced by lamp (or laser) passes through the first pinhole on the way to the specimen. The light that is reflected (bright light) or emitted (fluorescent light) from the specimen passes through a second pinhole on the way to the detector (eyepiece, camera or any recording device). The two pinholes have the same focus – thus they are confocal. The light from other focal planes cannot go through the second pinhole, and this reduces the background “glare” of out-of-focus fluorescence seen in epifluorescence widefield microscopes.

Since biological samples usually have thickness of a few microns at least, one can get an image of a thin slice of the sample (e.g. 0.1 µm) without physically slicing the sample (optical section). We can then move the focus along the Z axis to get clear images of up or down sections. Thus, for a cell 3µm thick, we can have 30 hi-resolution images 0.1 µm thick from bottom to top (z-sections). These images can then be stacked one on top of the other (z-stacking) to create a single 2D image or to reconstruct a 3D image of the sample.

Here’s an example from an experiment I did last week (note that this is a widefield, not confocal microscope):

Above is a composite image of 31 Z sections of U2OS cells, create by the ImageJ program. The”pseudo-blue” represents the blue fluorescnce of a dye called DAPI (4′,6-diamidino-2-phenylindole)  which intercalates into DNA, and is therefore a popular nuclear dye. When bound to DNA, it is excited by UV light (peak at 358nm) and emits blue/cyan light (peak at 461nm). The “pseudo-red” color represents the fluorescence of mCherry-ZBP1 fusion protein. mCherry is an RFP.

You can see in the image that the first and last few images in the series are out of focus. You can therefore choose the best or sharpest Z-section according to your needs.

However, most people do not show a single Z section since then we miss a lot of information that is found in other sections. The available programs today allow “stacking” the section to create a projection of all the sections into a single image.

Here is the maximum projection of the Z sections shown above:

Maximum projection means that the algorithm chooses, for each pixel, the highest value found in any of the 31 Z sections. However, since we chose all 31 sections, we can still see a “glare” or halo. This is a result of the “halos” from the out of focus sections.

I therefore choose only a few sections to create the next image:

This image is now sharper and better looking.

The program allows you other options besides maximu projection: you can choose minimum, average, median, and even standrad deviation, seen in the next image (DAPI channel only):

It looks very cool. I stacked the entire 31 sections (of a differnt field), so you can see the halo from the out-of-focus sections sorounding the “black” rim of the nucleus (black since it has the minimal standrd deviation value for all the images). The blue zones, with high SD, suggest a larger differnce in fluorescence between the differnt sections.

Above, I mentions that the blue and red are pseudo colors. What actually happened was that the images I took with the microscope at each channel (range of wavelengths) is actually maintained as a greyscale image.

Using the image analysis program you can then merge the images of the differnt channels (up to 4 in ImageJ) to create a color image. When creating the merged image, you determine what color to assign to each channel. Here is the same image, but with the colors reversed:

You should take that into account when you see pretty pictures in sceintific journals.

The program also allows to creade 3D representations of your Z stack. but I haven’t learned how to do that.

There are many other tools that one can use with the image analysis program besides creating the image. One important feture is the ability to measure the intensity of the fluorescent signal (actually, the pixels) in certain areas within the cell. You can measure distances and angles between objects and probably many moer that I still have to learn.

2 responses to “Basics in Confocal microscopy and image analysis

  1. The information given in this page is really informative for us. The microscopic image processing has lots of importance in this era. The microscopic image processing is a kind of digital image processing. Keep sharing these kind of innovative information in the upcoming posts too.


    • Dear Don,
      It feels to me that the only purpose of your comment here is to advertise your website of microscopes. If you are knowledgeable on microscopes & imaging, I welcome your contribution so long as it is meaningful and not serves only as a platform for advertisement. I therefore deleted to link to your site.


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