Open Access Highly Accessed Methodology article

Automated measurement of cell motility and proliferation

Alfred Bahnson1*, Charalambos Athanassiou1, Douglas Koebler1, Lei Qian1, Tongying Shun1, Donna Shields2, Hui Yu2, Hong Wang2, Julie Goff2, Tao Cheng2, Raymond Houck1 and Lex Cowsert1

Author affiliations

1 Automated Cell, Inc. 390 William Pitt Way, Pittsburgh, PA, 15238 USA

2 University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, Research Pavilion at The Hillman Cancer Center, 5117 Center Ave, Pittsburgh, PA, 15213-1863 USA

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Citation and License

BMC Cell Biology 2005, 6:19  doi:10.1186/1471-2121-6-19

Published: 14 April 2005



Time-lapse microscopic imaging provides a powerful approach for following changes in cell phenotype over time. Visible responses of whole cells can yield insight into functional changes that underlie physiological processes in health and disease. For example, features of cell motility accompany molecular changes that are central to the immune response, to carcinogenesis and metastasis, to wound healing and tissue regeneration, and to the myriad developmental processes that generate an organism. Previously reported image processing methods for motility analysis required custom viewing devices and manual interactions that may introduce bias, that slow throughput, and that constrain the scope of experiments in terms of the number of treatment variables, time period of observation, replication and statistical options. Here we describe a fully automated system in which images are acquired 24/7 from 384 well plates and are automatically processed to yield high-content motility and morphological data.


We have applied this technology to study the effects of different extracellular matrix compounds on human osteoblast-like cell lines to explore functional changes that may underlie processes involved in bone formation and maintenance. We show dose-response and kinetic data for induction of increased motility by laminin and collagen type I without significant effects on growth rate. Differential motility response was evident within 4 hours of plating cells; long-term responses differed depending upon cell type and surface coating. Average velocities were increased approximately 0.1 um/min by ten-fold increases in laminin coating concentration in some cases. Comparison with manual tracking demonstrated the accuracy of the automated method and highlighted the comparative imprecision of human tracking for analysis of cell motility data. Quality statistics are reported that associate with stage noise, interference by non-cell objects, and uncertainty in the outlining and positioning of cells by automated image analysis. Exponential growth, as monitored by total cell area, did not linearly correlate with absolute cell number, but proved valuable for selection of reliable tracking data and for disclosing between-experiment variations in cell growth.


These results demonstrate the applicability of a system that uses fully automated image acquisition and analysis to study cell motility and growth. Cellular motility response is determined in an unbiased and comparatively high throughput manner. Abundant ancillary data provide opportunities for uniform filtering according to criteria that select for biological relevance and for providing insight into features of system performance. Data quality measures have been developed that can serve as a basis for the design and quality control of experiments that are facilitated by automation and the 384 well plate format. This system is applicable to large-scale studies such as drug screening and research into effects of complex combinations of factors and matrices on cell phenotype.