Cellular microscopy images contain rich insights about biology. To extract this information, researchers use features, or measurements of the patterns of interest in the images. Here, we introduce a convolutional neural network (CNN) to automatically design features for fluorescence microscopy. We use a self-supervised method to learn feature representations of single cells in microscopy images without labelled training data. We train CNNs on a simple task that leverages the inherent structure of microscopy images and controls for variation in cell morphology and imaging: given one cell from an image, the CNN is asked to predict the fluorescence pattern in a second different cell from the same image. We show that our method learns high-quality features that describe protein expression patterns in single cells both yeast and human microscopy datasets. Moreover, we demonstrate that our features are useful for exploratory biological analysis, by capturing high-resolution cellular components in a proteome-wide cluster analysis of human proteins, and by quantifying multi-localized proteins and single-cell variability. We believe paired cell inpainting is a generalizable method to obtain feature representations of single cells in multichannel microscopy images.
To understand the cell biology captured by microscopy images, researchers use features, or measurements of relevant properties of cells, such as the shape or size of cells, or the intensity of fluorescent markers. Features are the starting point of most image analysis pipelines, so their quality in representing cells is fundamental to the success of an analysis. Classically, researchers have relied on features manually defined by imaging experts. In contrast, deep learning techniques based on convolutional neural networks (CNNs) automatically learn features, which can outperform manually-defined features at image analysis tasks. However, most CNN methods require large manually-annotated training datasets to learn useful features, limiting their practical application. Here, we developed a new CNN method that learns high-quality features for single cells in microscopy images, without the need for any labeled training data. We show that our features surpass other comparable features in identifying protein localization from images, and that our method can generalize to diverse datasets. By exploiting our method, researchers will be able to automatically obtain high-quality features customized to their own image datasets, facilitating many downstream analyses, as we highlight by demonstrating many possible use cases of our features in this study.