Podocyte morphology

In collaboration with the nephrology lab at the University Hospital Cologne, we explore super-resolution microscopy images of molecular morphology of kidney. The site of kidney filtration barrier is composed of specialized cells called podocytes which extend into formation termed foot processes (FPs). These formations stick to neighboring podocytes in an interdigitating pattern. The slits between adjacent FPs allow the passage of fluid and solutes, and they are spanned by a specialized cell-cell contact between FPs. Key proteins for the slit function – Podocin and Nephrin – can be imaged with super-resolution microscopy allowing to view the intricate shapes of the filtration barrier while a mouse model of human chronic kidney disease allows to precisely follow its progression.

In this project we adopt machine learning approach to comprehensively analyze and quantify morphological changes of podocytes related to the kidney filtration decline. FPs form intricate patterns difficult to describe manually or with a set of hand-designed visual parameters. Not only size and shape of individual FPs might play a role in filtration but also their collective configurations within the tissue. Although differences between healthy and diseased adult tissues are striking, these differences are less apparent between young, pre-symptomatic individuals. Here we combine machine learning methods with super-resolution microscopy and the unique mouse model to search for morphological markers of the disease.

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