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Showing their true colors: a practical approach to volume rendering from serial sections

Stephan Handschuh*, Thomas Schwaha and Brian D Metscher

Author Affiliations

Department of Theoretical Biology (Gerd Müller, Head), University of Vienna, Althanstrasse 14, 1090 Vienna, Austria

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BMC Developmental Biology 2010, 10:41  doi:10.1186/1471-213X-10-41

Published: 21 April 2010



In comparison to more modern imaging methods, conventional light microscopy still offers a range of substantial advantages with regard to contrast options, accessible specimen size, and resolution. Currently, tomographic image data in particular is most commonly visualized in three dimensions using volume rendering. To date, this method has only very rarely been applied to image stacks taken from serial sections, whereas surface rendering is still the most prevalent method for presenting such data sets three-dimensionally. The aim of this study was to develop standard protocols for volume rendering of image stacks of serial sections, while retaining the benefits of light microscopy such as resolution and color information.


Here we provide a set of protocols for acquiring high-resolution 3D images of diverse microscopic samples through volume rendering based on serial light microscopical sections using the 3D reconstruction software Amira (Visage Imaging Inc.). We overcome several technical obstacles and show that these renderings are comparable in quality and resolution to 3D visualizations using other methods. This practical approach for visualizing 3D micro-morphology in full color takes advantage of both the sub-micron resolution of light microscopy and the specificity of histological stains, by combining conventional histological sectioning techniques, digital image acquisition, three-dimensional image filtering, and 3D image manipulation and visualization technologies.


We show that this method can yield "true"-colored high-resolution 3D views of tissues as well as cellular and sub-cellular structures and thus represents a powerful tool for morphological, developmental, and comparative investigations. We conclude that the presented approach fills an important gap in the field of micro-anatomical 3D imaging and visualization methods by combining histological resolution and differentiation of details with 3D rendering of whole tissue samples. We demonstrate the method on selected invertebrate and vertebrate specimens, and propose that reinvestigation of historical serial section material may be regarded as a special benefit.