Many biophysical problems involve molecular and nanoscale targets moving next to a curvilinear track, e.g., a cytosolic cargo transported by motor proteins moving along a microtubule. For this type of problem, fluorescence imaging is usually the primary tool of choice. There is, however, an ∼20-fold mismatch between target-localization precision and track-imaging resolution such that questions requiring high-fidelity definition of the target's track remain inaccessible. On the other hand, if the contextual image of the tracks can be refined to a level comparable to that of the target, many intuitive yet mechanistically important issues can begin to be addressed. This work demonstrates that it is possible to statistically infer, to subpixel precision, curvilinear features in a low signal/noise image. This is achieved by a framework that consists of three stages: the Hessian-based feature enhancement, the subimage feature sampling and registration, and the statistical learning of the underlying curvilinear structure using a new, to our knowledge, method developed here for inferring the principal curves. In each stage, the descriptive prior information that the features come from curvilinear elements is explicitly taken into account. It is fully automated without user supervision, which is distinctly different from approaches that require user seeding or well-defined training data sets. Computer simulations of realistic images are used to investigate the performance of the framework and its implementation. The characterization results suggest that curvilinear features are refined to the same order of precision as that of the target and that the bootstrap confidence intervals from the analysis allow an estimate for the statistical bounds of the simulated “true” curve. Also shown are analyses of experimental images from three different microscopy modalities: two-photon laser-scanning microscopy, epifluorescence microscopy, and total internal reflection fluorescence microscopy. The practical application of this prior-apprised unsupervised learning framework as well as its potential outlook are discussed.
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