Is Cell Segmentation Needed for Cell Analysis?

Having just spent some posts discussing a paper on nuclear segmentation (all tagged posts), let me ask the question:

Is cell segmentation needed? Is this a necessary step in an analysis pipeline dealing with fluorescent cell images?

This is a common FAQ whenever I give a talk on my work which does not use segmentation, for example, using local features for classification (see the video). It is a FAQ because, for many people, it seems obvious that the answer is that Yes, you need cell segmentation. So, when they see me skip that step, they ask: shouldn’t you have segmented the cell regions?

Here is my answer:

Remember Vapnik‘s dictum [1]do not solve, as an intermediate step, a harder problem than the problem you really need to solve.

Thus the question becomes: is your scientific problem dependent on cell segmentation? In the case, for example, of subcellular location determination, it is not: all the cells in the same field display the same phenotype, your goal being the find out what it is. Therefore, you do not need to have an answer for each cell, only for the whole field.

In other problems, you may need to have a per-cell answer: for example in some kinds of RNAi experiment only a fraction of the cells in a field display the RNAi phenotype and the others did not take up the RNAi. Therefore, segmentation may be necessary. Similarly, if a measurement such as distance of fluorescent bodies to cell membrane is meaningful, by itself (as opposed to being used as a feature for classification), then you need segmentation.

However, sometimes you can get away without segmentation.


An important point to note is the following: while it may be good to have access to perfect classification, imperfect classification (i.e., the type you actually get), may not help as much as the perfect kind.


Just to be sure, I was not the first person to notice that you do not need segmentation for subcellular location determination. I think this is the first reference:

Huang, Kai, and Robert F. Murphy. “Automated classification of subcellular patterns in multicell images without segmentation into single cells.” Biomedical Imaging: Nano to Macro, 2004. IEEE International Symposium on. IEEE, 2004. [Google scholar link]

[1] I’m quoting from memory. It may a bit off. It sounds obvious when you put it this way, but it is still often not respected in practice.

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