The availability of high-speed, two-dimensional (2-D) confocal microscopes and the expanding armamentarium of fluorescent probes presents unprecedented opportunities and new challenges for studying the spatial and temporal dynamics of cellular processes. The need to remove subjectivity from the detection process, the difficulty of the human eye to detect subtle changes in fluorescence in these 2-D images, and the large volume of data produced by these confocal microscopes call for the need to develop algorithms to automatically mark the changes in fluorescence. These fluorescence signal changes are often subtle, so the statistical estimate of the likelihood that the detected signal is not noise is an integral part of the detection algorithm. This statistical estimation is fundamental to our new approach to detection; in earlier Ca 2+ spark detectors, this statistical assessment was incidental to detection. Importantly, the use of the statistical properties of the signal local to the spark, instead of over the whole image, reduces the false positive and false negative rates. We developed an automatic spark detection algorithm based on these principles and used it to detect sparks on an inhomogeneous background of transverse tubule-labeled rat ventricular cells. Because of the large region of the cell surveyed by the confocal microscope, we can detect a large enough number of sparks to measure the dynamic changes in spark frequency in individual cells. We also found, in contrast to earlier results, that cardiac sparks are spatially symmetric. This new approach puts the detection of fluorescent signals on a firm statistical foundation.
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