Category Archives: the digital cell

Blind To The Truth

Molecular Biology of The Cell, the official journal of the American Society for Cell Biology, recently joined a number of other periodicals in issuing guidelines for manuscripts, concerning statistics and reproducibility. I discussed these guidelines with the lab and we felt that there are two areas where we can improve:

  • blind analysis
  • power calculations

A post about power analysis is brewing, this post is about a solution for blind analysis.

For anyone that doesn’t know, blind analysis refers to: the person doing the analysis being blind to (not knowing) the experimental conditions. It is a way of reducing bias, intentional or otherwise, of analysis of experimental data. Most of our analysis workflows are blinded, because a computer does the analysis in an automated way so there is no way of a human biasing the result. Typically, a bunch of movies are captured, fed into a program using identical settings, and the answer gets spat out. Nothing gets excluded, or the exclusion criteria are agreed beforehand. Whether the human operating the computer is blind or not to the experimental conditions doesn’t matter.

For analysis that has a manual component we do not normally blind the analyser. Instead we look for ways to make the analysis free of bias. An example is using a non-experimental channel in the microscope image to locate a cellular structure. This means the analysis is done without “seeing” any kind of “result”, which might bias the analysis.

Sometimes, we do analysis which is almost completely manual and this is where we can improve by using blinding. Two objections raised to blinding are practical ones:

  • it is difficult/slow to get someone else to do the analysis of your data (we’ve tried it and it doesn’t work well!)
  • the analyser “knows” the result anyway, in the case of conditions where there is a strong effect

There’s not much we can do about the second one. But the solution to the first is to enable people to blindly analyse their own data if it is needed.

I wrote* a macro in ImageJ called BlindAnalysis.ijm which renames the files in a random fashion** and makes tsv log of the associations. The analyser can simply analyse blind_0001.tif, blind_0002.tif and then reassociate the results to the real files using this tsv.


The picture shows the macro in action. A folder containing 10 TIFFs is processed into a new folder called BLIND. The files are stripped of labels (look at the original TIFF, left and the blind version, right) and saved with blinded names. The log file keeps track of associations.

I hope this simple macro is useful to others. Feedback welcome either on this post or on GitHub.

* actually, I found an old macro on the web called Shuffler written by Christophe Leterrier. This needed a bit of editing and also had several options that weren’t needed, so it was more deleting than writing.

** it also strips out the label of the file. If you only rename files, the label remains in ImageJ so the analyser is not blind to the condition. Originally I was working on a bash script to do the renaming, but when I realised that I needed to strip out the labels, I needed to find an all-ImageJ solution.

Edit @ 2016-10-11T06:05:48.422Z I have updated the macro with the help of some useful suggestions.

The post title is taken from “Blind To The Truth” a 22 second-long track from Napalm Death’s 2nd LP ‘From Enslavement To Obliteration.

The Arcane Model

I’m currently writing two manuscripts that each have a substantial data modelling component. Some of our previous papers have included computer code, but it was straightforward enough to have the code as a supplementary file or in a GitHub repo and leave it at that. Now with more substantial computation in the manuscript, I was wondering how best to describe it. How much detail is required?

How much explanation should be in the main text, how much is in supplementary information and how much is simply via commenting in the code itself?

I asked for recommendations for excellent cell biology papers that had a modelling component, where the computation was well described.

I got many replies and I’ve collated this list of papers below so that I can refer to them and in case it is useful for anyone who is also looking for inspiration. I’ve added the journal names only so that you can see what journals are interested in publishing cell biology with a computational component. Here they are, in no particular order:

  • This paper on modelling kinetochore-microtubule attachment in pombe. Published in JCB there is also a GitHub repo for the software, kt_simul written in Python. The authors used commenting and also put a PDF of the heavy detail on GitHub.
  • Modelling of signalling networks here in PLoS Comput Biol.
  • This paper using Voronoi tesselations to examine tissue packing of cells in EMBO J.
  • Two papers, this one in JCB featuring modelling of DNA repair and this one in Curr Biol on photoreceptors in flies.
  • Cell movements via depletion of chemoattractants in PLos Biol.
  • Protein liquid droplets as organising centres for biochemical reactions is a hot topic. This paper in Cell was recommended.
  • Final tip was to look at PLoS Comput Biol for inspiration, searching for cell biology topics. Papers like this one on Smoldyn 2.1.

Thanks to Hadrien Mary, Robert Insall, Joachim Goedhart, Stephen Floor, Jon Humphries, Luis Escudero, and Neil Saunders for the suggestions.

The post title is taken from “The Arcane Model” by The Delgados from their album Peloton.

The Digital Cell: Statistical tests

Statistical hypothesis testing, commonly referred to as “statistics”, is a topic of consternation among cell biologists.

This is a short practical guide I put together for my lab. Hopefully it will be useful to others. Note that statistical hypothesis testing is a huge topic and one post cannot hope to cover everything that you need to know.

What statistical test should I do?

To figure out what statistical test you need to do, look at the table below. But before that, you need to ask yourself a few things.

  • What are you comparing?
  • What is n?
  • What will the test tell you? What is your hypothesis?
  • What will the p value (or other summary statistic) mean?

If you are not sure about any of these things, whichever test you do is unlikely to tell you much.

The most important question is: what type of data do you have? This will help you pick the right test.

  • Measurement – most data you analyse in cell biology will be in this category. Examples are: number of spots per cell, mean GFP intensity per cell, diameter of nucleus, speed of cell migration…
    • Normally-distributed – this means it follows a “bell-shaped curve” otherwise called “Gaussian distribution”.
    • Not normally-distributed – data that doesn’t fit a normal distribution: skewed data, or better described by other types of curve.
  • Binomial – this is data where there are two possible outcomes. A good example here in cell biology would be a mitotic index measurement (the proportion of cells in mitosis). A cell is either in mitosis or it is not.
  • Other – maybe you have ranked or scored data. This is not very common in cell biology. A typical example here would be a scoring chart for a behavioural effect with agreed criteria (0 = normal, 5 = epileptic seizures). For a cell biology experiment, you might have a scoring system for a phenotype, e.g. fragmented Golgi (0 = is not fragmented, 5 = is totally dispersed). These arbitrary systems are a not a good idea. Especially, if the person scoring is unblinded to the experimental procedure. Try to come up with an unbiased measurement procedure.


What do you want to do? Measurement



(not Normal)



Describe one group Mean, SD Median, IQR Proportion
Compare one group to a value One-sample t-test Wilcoxon test Chi-square
Compare two unpaired groups Unpaired t-test Wilcoxon-Mann-Whitney two-sample rank test Fisher’s exact test

or Chi-square

Compare two paired groups Paired t-test Wilcoxon signed rank test McNemar’s test
Compare three or more unmatched groups One-way ANOVA Kruskal-Wallis test Chi-square test
Compare three or more matched groups Repeated-measures ANOVA Friedman test Cochran’s Q test
Quantify association between two variables Pearson correlation Spearman correlation
Predict value from another measured variable Simple linear regression Nonparametric regression Simple logistic regression
Predict value from several measured or binomial variables Multiple linear (or nonlinear) regression Multiple logistic regression

Modified from Table 37.1 (p. 298) in Intuitive Biostatistics by Harvey Motulsky, 1995 OUP.

What do “paired/unpaired” and “matched/unmatched” mean?

Most of the data you will get in cell biology is unpaired or unmatched. Individual cells are measured and you have say, 20 cells in the control group and 18 different cells in the test group. These are unpaired (or unmatched in the case of more than one test group) because the cells are different in each group. If you had the same cell in two (or more) groups, the data would be paired (or matched). An example of a paired dataset would be where you have 10 cells that you treat with a drug. You take a measurement from each of them before treatment and a measurement after. So you have paired measurements: one for cell A before treatment, one after; one for cell B before and after, and so on.

How to do some of these tests in IgorPRO

The examples below assume that you have values in waves called data0, data1, data2,… substitute the wavenames for your actual wave names.

Is it normally distributed?

The simplest way is to plot them and see. You can plot out your data using Analysis>Histogram… or Analysis>Packages>Percentiles and BoxPlot… Another possibility is to look at skewness or kurtosis of the dataset (you can do this with WaveStats, see below)

However, if you only have a small number of measurements, or you want to be sure, you can do a test. There are several tests you can do (Kolmogorov-Smirnoff, Jarque-Bera, Shapiro-Wilk). The easiest to do and most intuitive (in Igor) is Shapiro-Wilk.

StatsShapiroWilkTest data0

If p < 0.05 then the data are not normally distributed. Statistical tests on normally distributed data are called parametric, while those on non-normally distributed data are non-parametric.

Describe one group

To get the mean and SD (and lots of other statistics from your data):

Wavestats data0

To get the median and IQR:

StatsQuantiles/ALL data0

The mean and sd are also stored as variables (V_avg, V_sdev). StatsQuantiles calculates V_median, V_Q25, V_Q75, V_IQR, etc. Note that you can just get the median by typing Print StatsMedian(data0) or – in Igor7 – Print median(data0). There is often more than one way to do something in Igor.

Compare one group to a value

It is unlikely that you will need to do this. In cell biology, most of the time we do not have hypothetical values for comparison, we have experimental values from appropriate controls. If you need to do this:

StatsTTest/CI/T=1 data0

Compare two unpaired groups

Use this for normally distributed data where you have test versus control, with no other groups. For paired data, use the additional flag /PAIR.

StatsTTest/CI/T=1 data0,data1

For the non-parametric equivalent, if n is large computation takes a long time. Use additional flag /APRX=2. If the data are paired, use the additional flag /WSRT.

StatsWilcoxonRankTest/T=1/TAIL=4 data0,data1

For binomial data, your waves will have 2 points. Where point 0 corresponds to one outcome and point 1, the other. Note that you can compare to expected values here, for example a genetic cross experiment can be compared to expected Mendelian frequencies. To do Fisher’s exact test, you need a 2D wave representing a contingency table. McNemar’s test for paired binomial data is not available in Igor

StatsChiTest/S/T=1 data0,data1

If you have more than two groups, do not do multiple versions of these tests, use the correct method from the table.

Compare three or more unmatched groups

For normally-distributed data, you need to do a 1-way ANOVA followed by a post-hoc test. The ANOVA will tell you if there are any differences among the groups and if it is possible to investigate further with a post-hoc test. You can discern which groups are different using a post-hoc test. There are several tests available, e.g. Dunnet’s is useful where you have one control value and a bunch of test conditions. We tend to use Tukey’s post-hoc comparison (the /NK flag also does Newman-Keuls test).

StatsAnova1Test/T=1/Q/W/BF data0,data1,data2,data3
StatsTukeyTest/T=1/Q/NK data0,data1,data2,data3

The non-parametric equivalent is Kruskal-Wallis followed by a multiple comparison test. Dunn-Holland-Wolfe method is used.

StatsKSTest/T=1/Q data0,data1,data2,data3
StatsNPMCTest/T=1/DHW/Q data0,data1,data2,data3

Compare three or more matched groups

It’s unlikely that this kind of data will be obtained in a typical cell biology experiment.

StatsANOVA2RMTest/T=1 data0,data1,data2,data3

There are also operations for StatsFriedmanTest and StatsCochranTest.


Straightforward command for two waves or one 2D wave. Waves (or columns) must be of the same length

StatsCorrelation data0

At this point, you probably want to plot out the data and use Igor’s fitting functions. The best way to get started is with the example experiment, or just display your data and Analysis>Curve Fitting…

Hazard and survival data

In the lab we have, in the past, done survival/hazard analysis. This is a bit more complex and we used SPSS and would do so again as Igor does not provide these functions.

Notes for use

Screen Shot 2016-07-12 at 14.18.18The good news is that all of this is a lot more intuitive in Igor 7! There is a new Menu item called Statistics, where most of these functions have a dialog with more information. In Igor 6.3 you are stuck with the command line. Igor 7 will be out soon (July 2016).

  • Note that there are further options to most of these commands, if you need to see them
    • check the manual or Igor Help
    • or type ShowHelpTopic “StatsMedian” in the Command Window (put whatever command you want help with between the quotes).
  • Extra options are specified by “flags”, these are things like “/Q” that come after the command. For example, /Q means “quiet” i.e. don’t print the output into the history window.
  • You should always either print the results to the history or put them into a table so that we can check them. Note that the table gets over written if you do the same test with different data, so printing in this case is a good idea.
  • The defaults in Igor are setup OK for our needs. For example, Igor does two-tailed comparison, alpha = 0.05, Welch’s correction, etc.
  • Most operations can handle waves of different length (or have flags set to handle this case).
  • If you are used to doing statistical tests in Excel, you might be wondering about tails and equal variances. The flags are set in the examples to do two-tailed analysis and unequal variances are handled by Welch’s correction.
  • There’s a school of thought that says that using non-parametric tests is best to be cautious. These tests are not as powerful and so it is best to use parametric tests (t test, ANOVA) when you can.

Part of a series on the future of cell biology in quantitative terms.

The Digital Cell: Getting started with IgorPRO

This post follows on from “Getting Started“.

In the lab we use IgorPRO for pretty much everything. We have many analysis routines that run in Igor, we have scripts for processing microscope metadata etc, and we use it for generating all figures for our papers. Even so, people in the lab engage with it to varying extents. The main battle is that the use of Excel is pretty ubiquitous.

I am currently working on getting more people in the lab started with using Igor. I’ve found that everyone is keen to learn. The approach so far has been workshops to go through the basics. This post accompanies the first workshop, which is coupled to the first few pages of the Manual. If you’re interested in using Igor read on… otherwise you can skip to the part where I explain why I don’t want people in the lab to use Excel.

IgorPro is very powerful and the learning curve is steep, but the investment is worth it.

WaveMetrics_IGOR_Pro_LogoThese are some of the things that Igor can do: Publication-quality graphics, High-speed data display, Ability to handle large data sets, Curve-fitting, Fourier transforms, smoothing, statistics, and other data analysis, Waveform arithmetic, Matrix math, Image display and processing, Combination graphical and command-line user interface, Automation and data processing via a built-in programming environment, Extensibility through modules written in the C and C++ languages. You can even play games in it!

The basics

The first thing to learn is about the objects in the Igor environment and how they work.There are four basic objects that all Igor users will encounter straight away.

  • Waves
  • Graphs
  • Tables
  • Layouts

All data is stored as waveforms (or waves for short). Waves can be displayed in graphs or tables. Graphs and tables can be placed in a Layout. This is basically how you make a figure.

The next things to check out are the command window (which displays the history), the data browser and the procedure window.

Essential IgorPro

  • Tables are not spreadsheets! Most important thing to understand. Tables are just a way of displaying a wave. They may look like a spreadsheet, but they are not.
  • Igor is case insensitive.
  • Spaces. Igor can handle spaces in names of objects, but IMO are best avoided.
  • Igor is 0-based not 1-based
  • Logical naming and logical thought – beginners struggle with this and it’s difficult to get this right when you are working on a project, but consistent naming of objects makes life easier.
  • Programming versus not programming – you can get a long way without programming but at some point it will be necessary and it will save you a lot of time.

Pretty soon, you will go beyond the four basic objects and encounter other things. These include: Numeric and string variables, Data folders, Notebooks, Control panels, 3D plots – a.k.a. gizmo, Procedures.

Getting started guide

Getting started guide

Why don’t we use Excel?

  • Excel can’t make high quality graphics for publication.
    • We do that in Igor.
    • So any effort in Excel is a waste of time.
  • Excel is error-prone.
    • Too easy for mistakes to be introduced.
    • Not auditable. Tough/impossible to find mistakes.
    • Igor has a history window that allows us to see what has happened.
  • Most people don’t know how to use it properly.
  • Not good for biological data – Transcription factor Oct4 gets converted to a date.
  • Limited to 1048576 rows and 16384 columns.
  • Related: useful link describing some spreadsheet crimes of data entry.

But we do use Excel a lot

  • Excel is useful for quick calculations and for preparing simple charts to show at lab meeting.
  • Same way that Powerpoint is OK to do rough figures for lab meeting.
  • But neither are publication-quality.
  • We do use Excel for Tracking Tables, Databases(!) etc.

The transition is tough, but worth it

Writing formulae in Excel is straightforward, and the first thing you will find is that to achieve the same thing in Igor is more complicated. For example, working out the mean for each row in an array (a1:y20) in Excel would mean typing =AVERAGE(A1:y1) in cell z1 and copying this cell down to z20. Done. In Igor there are several ways to do this, which itself can be unnerving. One way is to use the Waves Average panel. You need to know how this works to get it to do what you want.

But before you turn back, thinking I’ll just do this in Excel and then import it… imagine you now want to subtract a baseline value from the data, scale it and then average. Imagine that your data are sampled at different intervals. How would you do that? Dealing with those simple cases in Excel is difficult-to-impossible. In Igor, it’s straightforward.

Resources for learning more Igor:

  • Igor Help – fantastic resource containing the manual and more. Access via Help or by typing ShowHelpTopic “thing I want to search for”.
  • Igor Manual – This PDF is available online or in Applications/Igor Pro/Manual. This used to be a distributed as a hard copy… it is now ~3000 pages.
  • Guided Tour of IgorPro – this is a great way to start and will form the basis of the workshops.
  • Demos – Igor comes packed with Demos for most things from simple to advanced applications.
  • IgorExchange – Lots of code snippets and a forum to ask for advice or search for past answers.
  • Igor Tips – I’ve honestly never used these, you can turn on tips in Igor which reveal help on mouse over.
  • Igor mailing list – topics discussed here are pretty advanced.
  • Introduction to IgorPRO from Payam Minoofar is good. A faster start to learning to program that reading the manual.
  • Hands-on experience!

Part of a series on the future of cell biology in quantitative terms.

The Digital Cell: Getting Started

More on the theme of “The Digital Cell“: using quantitative, computational approaches in cell biology.

So you want to get started? Well, the short version of this post is:

Find something that you need to automate and get going!


I make no claim to be a computer wizard. My first taste of programming was the same as anyone who went to school in the UK in the 1980s: BBC Basic. Although my programming only went as far as copying a few examples from the book (right), this experience definitely reduced the “fear of the command line”. My next encounter with coding was to learn HTML when I was an undergraduate. It was not until I was a postdoc that I realised that I needed to write scripts in order get computers to do what I wanted them to do for my research.

Image analysis

I work in cell biology. My work involves a lot of microscopy. From the start, I used computer-based methods to quantify images. My first paper mentions quantifying images, but it wasn’t until I was a PhD student that I first used NIH Image (as it was called then) to extract quantitative information from confocal micrographs. I was also introduced to IgorPRO (version 3!) as a PhD student, but did no programming. That came later. As a postdoc, we used Scanalytics’ IPLab and Igor (as well as a bit of ImageJ as it had become). IPLab had an easy scripting language and it was in this program that I learned to write macros for analysis. At this time there were people in the lab who were writing software in IgorPro and MATLAB. While I didn’t pick up programming in IgorPRO or MATLAB then, it made me realise what was possible.

When I started my own group I discovered that IPLab had been acquired by BD Biosciences and then stripped out. I had hundreds of useless scripts and needed a new solution. ImageJ had improved enormously by this time and so this became our default image analysis program. The first data analysis package I bought was IgorPro (version 6) and I have stuck with it since then. In a future post, I will probably return to whether or not this was a good path.

Getting started with programming

Around 2009, I was still unable to program properly. I needed a macro for baseline subtraction – something really simple – and realised I didn’t know how to do it. We didn’t have just one or two traces to modify, we had hundreds. This was simply not possible by hand. It was this situation that made me realise I needed to learn to program.

…having a concrete problem that is impossible to crack any other way is the best motivator for learning to program.

This might seem obvious, but having a concrete problem that is impossible to crack any other way is the best motivator for learning to program. I know many people who have decided they “want to learn to code” or they are “going to learn to use R”. This approach rarely works. Sitting down and learning this stuff without sufficient motivation is really tough. So I would advise someone wanting to learn programming to find something that needs automation and just get going. Just get something to work!

Don’t worry (initially) about any of the following:

  • What program/language to use – as long as it is possible, just pick something and do it
  • If your code is ugly or embarrassing to show to an expert – as long as it runs, it doesn’t matter
  • About copy-and-pasting from examples – it’s OK as long as you take time to understand what you are doing, this is a quick way to make progress. Resources such as stackoverflow are excellent for this
  • Bugs – you can squish them, they will frustrate you, but you might need some…
  • Help – ask for help. Online forums are great, experts love showing off their knowledge. If you have local expertise, even better!

Once you have written something (and it works)… congratulations, you are a computer programmer!

IMG_2206Seriously, that is all there is to it. OK, it’s a long way to being a good programmer or even a competent one, but you have made a start. Like Obi Wan Kenobi says: you’ve taken your first step into a larger world.

So how do you get started with an environment like IgorPro? This will be the topic for next time.

Part of a series on the future of cell biology in quantitative terms.

The Digital Cell: Workflow

The future of cell biology, even for small labs, is quantitative and computational. What does this mean and what should it look like?

My group is not there yet, but in this post I’ll describe where we are heading. The graphic below shows my current view of the ideal workflow for my lab.


The graphic is pretty self-explanatory, but to walk you through:

  • A lab member sets up a microscopy experiment. We have standardised procedures/protocols in a lab manual and systems are in place so that reagents are catalogued to minimise error.
  • Data goes straight from the microscope to the server (and backed-up). Images and metadata are held in a database and object identifiers are used for referencing in electronic lab notebooks (and for auditing).
  • Analysis of the data happens with varying degrees of human intervention. The outputs of all analyses are processed automatically. Code for doing these steps in under version control using git (github).
  • Post-analysis the processed outputs contain markers for QC and error checking. We can also trace back to the original data and check the analysis. Development of code happens here too, speeding up slow procedures via “software engineering”.
  • Figures are generated using scripts which are linked to the original data with an auditable record of any modification to the image.
  • Project management, particularly of paper writing is via trello. Writing papers is done using collaborative tools. Everything is synchronised to enable working from any location.
  • This is just an overview and some details are missing, e.g. backup of analyses is done locally and via the server.

Just to reiterate, that my team are not at this point yet, but we are reasonably close. We have not yet implemented three of these things properly in my group, but in our latest project (via collaboration) the workflow has worked as described above.

The output is a manuscript! In the future I can see that publication of a paper as a condensed report will give way to making the data, scripts and analysis available, together with a written summary. This workflow is designed to allow this to happen easily, but this is the topic for another post.

Part of a series on the future of cell biology in quantitative terms.

The Digital Cell

If you are a cell biologist, you will have noticed the change in emphasis in our field.

At one time, cell biology papers were – in the main – qualitative. Micrographs of “representative cells”, western blots of a “typical experiment”… This descriptive style gave way to more quantitative approaches, converting observations into numbers that could be objectively assessed. More recently, as technology advanced, computing power increased and data sets became more complex, we have seen larger scale analysis, modelling, and automation begin to take centre stage.

This change in emphasis encompasses several areas including (in no particular order):

  • Statistical analysis
  • Image analysis
  • Programming
  • Automation allowing analysis at scale
  • Reproducibility
  • Version control
  • Data storage, archiving and accessing large datasets
  • Electronic lab notebooks
  • Computer vision and machine learning
  • Prospective and retrospective modelling
  • Mathematics and physics

The application of these areas is not new to biology and has been worked on extensively for years in certain areas. Perhaps most obviously by groups that identified themselves as “systems biologists”, “computational biologists”, and people working on large-scale cell biology projects. My feeling is that these methods have now permeated mainstream (read: small-scale) cell biology to such an extent that any groups that want to do cell biology in the future have to adapt in order to survive. It will change the skills that we look for when recruiting and it will shape the cell biologists of the future. Other fields such as biophysics and neuroscience are further through this change, while others have yet to begin. It is an exciting time to be a biologist.

I’m planning to post occasionally about the way that our cell biology research group is working on these issues: our solutions and our problems.

Part of a series on the future of cell biology in quantitative terms.