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Keywords:

  • avian embryonic development;
  • calibrated computed tomography values;
  • iodine;
  • microscopic X-ray computed tomography;
  • three-dimensional quantitative imaging;
  • X-ray computed tomography

Abstract

Rapid three-dimensional imaging of embryos to better understand the complex process of morphogenesis has been challenging. Recently introduced iodine staining protocols (I2KI and alcoholic iodine stains) combined with microscopic X-ray computed tomography allows visualization of soft tissues in diverse small organisms and tissue specimens. I2KI protocols have been developed specifically for small animals, with a limited number of quantitative studies of soft tissue contrasts. To take full advantage of the low X-ray attenuation of ethanol and retain bound iodine while dehydrating the specimen in ethanol, we developed an ethanol I2KI protocol. We present comparative microscopic X-ray computed tomography analyses of ethanol I2KI and I2KI staining protocols to assess the performance of this new protocol to visualize soft tissue anatomy in late stage Japanese quail embryos using quantitative measurements of soft tissue contrasts and sample shrinkage. Both protocols had only 5% shrinkage compared with the original harvested specimen, supporting the use of whole mounts to minimize tissue shrinkage effects. Discrimination within and among the selected organs with each staining protocol and microscopic X-ray computed tomography imaging were comparable to those of a gray scale histological section. Tissue discrimination was assessed using calibrated computed tomography values and a new discrimination index to quantify the degree of computed tomography value overlaps between selected soft tissue regions. Tissue contrasts were dependent on the depth of the tissue within the embryos before the embryos were saturated with each stain solution, and optimal stain saturations for the entire embryo were achieved at 14 and 28 days staining for I2KI and ethanol I2KI, respectively. Ethanol I2KI provided superior soft tissue contrasts by reducing overstaining of fluid-filled spaces and differentially modulating staining of some tissues, such as bronchial and esophageal walls and spinal cord. Delineating the selected soft tissues using optimal threshold ranges derived from the quantitative analyses of the contrast enhancement in optimally stained embryos is possible. The protocols presented here are expected to be applicable to other organisms with modifications to staining time and contribute toward rapid and more efficient segmentation of soft tissues for three-dimensional visualization.