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Analysis of Fluorescent-Stained Lipid Droplets with 3D Reconstruction for Hepatic Steatosis Assessment

Published: June 2nd, 2023



1Institute of Pharmacology & Experimental Therapeutics & Coimbra Institute for Clinical and Biomedical Research (iCBR), Faculty of Medicine, University of Coimbra, 2Center for Innovative Biomedicine and Biotechnology (CIBB), University of Coimbra, 3Clinical Academic Center of Coimbra (CACC), 4Polytechnic Institute of Coimbra, Coimbra Health School

Herein, we demonstrate an optimized BODIPY 493/503 fluorescence-based protocol for lipid droplet characterization in liver tissue. Through the use of orthogonal projections and 3D reconstructions, the fluorophore allows for successful discrimination between microvesicular and macrovesicular steatosis and may represent a complementary approach to the classical histological protocols for hepatic steatosis assessment.

Lipid droplets (LDs) are specialized organelles that mediate lipid storage and play a very important role in suppressing lipotoxicity and preventing dysfunction caused by free fatty acids (FAs). The liver, given its critical role in the body's fat metabolism, is persistently threatened by the intracellular accumulation of LDs in the form of both microvesicular and macrovesicular hepatic steatosis. The histologic characterization of LDs is typically based on lipid-soluble diazo dyes, such as Oil Red O (ORO) staining, but a number of disadvantages consistently hamper the use of this analysis with liver specimens. More recently, lipophilic fluorophores 493/503 have become popular for visualizing and locating LDs due to their rapid uptake and accumulation into the neutral lipid droplet core. Even though most applications are well-described in cell cultures, there is less evidence demonstrating the reliable use of lipophilic fluorophore probes as an LD imaging tool in tissue samples. Herein, we propose an optimized boron dipyrromethene (BODIPY) 493/503-based protocol for the evaluation of LDs in liver specimens from an animal model of high-fat diet (HFD)-induced hepatic steatosis. This protocol covers liver sample preparation, tissue sectioning, BODIPY 493/503 staining, image acquisition, and data analysis. We demonstrate an increased number, intensity, area ratio, and diameter of hepatic LDs upon HFD feeding. Using orthogonal projections and 3D reconstructions, it was possible to observe the full content of neutral lipids in the LD core, which appeared as nearly spherical droplets. Moreover, with the fluorophore BODIPY 493/503, we were able to distinguish microvesicles (1 µm < d ≤ 3 µm), intermediate vesicles (3 µm < d ≤ 9 µm), and macrovesicles (d > 9 µm), allowing the successful discrimination of microvesicular and macrovesicular steatosis. Overall, this BODIPY 493/503 fluorescence-based protocol is a reliable and simple tool for hepatic LD characterization and may represent a complementary approach to the classical histological protocols.

Lipid droplets (LDs), classically viewed as energy depots, are specialized cellular organelles that mediate lipid storage, and they comprise a hydrophobic neutral lipid core, which mainly contains cholesterol esters and triglycerides (TGs), encapsulated by a phospholipid monolayer1,2,3.

LD biogenesis occurs in the endoplasmic reticulum (ER), starting with the synthesis of triacylglycerol (TAG) and sterol esters. Neutral lipids are diffused between the leaflets of the ER bilayer at low concentrations but coalesce into oil lenses that grow and bud in....

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All animal procedures performed in this study were approved by the Coimbra Institute for Clinical and Biomedical Research (iCBR) Animal Welfare Body (ORBEA, #9/2018) and complied with the Animal Care National and European Directives and with the ARRIVE guidelines.

1. Experimental design

  1. Pair-house 13 week old male Wistar rats in ventilated cages under controlled environmental conditions of temperature (22 °C ± 1 °C), humidity (50%-60%), and light (12.......

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The successful execution of this technique should result in clear lipid droplet staining for the simultaneous characterization of the LD morphology (shape and lipid core density based on the 3D reconstruction) along with their spatial distribution, number per total area, and average size (assessed with the pipeline above described, Figure 1).

Figure 1

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This BODIPY 493/503 fluorescence-based protocol for LD assessment aimed to develop a new imaging approach for the evaluation of hepatic steatosis. Given the strong correlation between obesity and fatty liver disease, the Western-style high-fat diet was used to establish an animal model of hepatic steatosis26. A robust increase in hepatic TG contents was confirmed by a quantitative triglycerides colorimetric assay kit, which suggested a heightened hepatic lipidosis scenario in the HFD-fed animals. .......

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This research was funded by National and European Funds via the Portuguese Science and Technology Foundation (FCT), European Regional Development Fund (FEDER), and Programa Operacional Factores de Competitividade (COMPETE): 2020.09481.BD, UIDP/04539/2020 (CIBB), and POCI-01-0145-FEDER-007440. The authors would like to thank the support of iLAB - Microscopy and Bioimaging Lab, a facility of the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Coimbra and a member of the national infrastructure PPBI-Portuguese Platform of BioImaging (POCI-01-0145-FEDER-022122), as well as support from FSE CENTRO-04-3559-FSE-000142.


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Name Company Catalog Number Comments
1.6 mm I.D. silicone tubing, I.V mini drip set Fisher Scientific
4,4-difluoro-1,3,5,7,8-pentametil-4-bora-3a,4a-diaza-s-indaceno (BODIPY 493/503) Sigma-Aldrich, Lyon, France D3922
4',6-diamidino-2-phenylindole (DAPI) Molecular Probes Inc, Invitrogen, Eugene, OR D1306
70% ethanol Honeywell 10191455
Adobe Illustrator CC Adobe Inc. Used to design the figures
Automatic analyzer Hitachi 717 Roche Diagnostics Inc., Mannheim, Germany 8177-30-0010
Barrier pen (Liquid blocker super pap pen) Daido Sangyo Co., Ltd, Japon _
Blade Leica 221052145 Used in the cryostat
Cell Profiler version 4.2.5 Used to analyse the acquired images
Coverslips Menzel-Glaser, Germany _
Cryomolds Tissue-Tek _
Cryostat (including specimen disc and heat extractor) CM3050 S Leica Biosystems _
Dimethyl Sulfoxide (DMSO) Sigma-Aldrich, Lyon, France D-8418 Used to dissolve Bodipy for the 5 mg/mL stock solution. CAUTION: Toxic
and flammable. Vapors may cause
irritation. Manipulate in a fume
hood. Avoid direct contact with skin.
Wear rubber gloves, protective eye
Dry ice container (styrofoam cooler) Novolab A26742
Dumont forceps Fine Science Tools, Germany 11295-10
Glass Petri dish (H 25 mm, ø
150 mm)
Thermo Scientific 150318 Used to weigh the liver after dissection
Glycergel DAKO Omnis S303023
GraphPad Prism software, version 9.3.1 GraphPad Software, Inc., La Jolla, CA, USA
High-fat diet Envigo, Barcelona, Spain MD.08811
Ketamine (Nimatek  100 mg/mL) Dechra 791/01/14DFVPT Used at a final concentration of 75 mg/kg
Laser scanning confocal microscope  (QUASAR detection unit; ) Carl Zeiss, germany LSM 710 Axio Observer Z1 microscope
Medetomidine (Sedator 1 mg/mL) Dechra 1838 ESP / 020/01/07RFVPT Used at a final concentration of 1 mg/kg
Needle BD microlance 300635
No 15 Sterile carbon steel scalpel
Swann-Morton 205
Objectives 10x (Plan-Neofluar 10x/0.3), 20x (Plan-Apochromat 20x/0.8) and 40x (Plan-Neofluar 40x/1.30 Oil)  Carl Zeiss, Germany
Paint brushes Van Bleiswijck Amazon B07W7KJQ2X  Used to handle cryosections
Peristaltic pump (Minipuls 3) Gilson 1004170
Phosphate-buffered saline (PBS, pH ~ 7.4) Sigma-Aldrich, Lyon, France P3813
Scalpel handle, 125 mm (5"), No. 3 Swann-Morton 0208
Slide staining system StainTray Simport Scientific M920
Standard diet  Mucedola 4RF21
Superfrost Plus microscope slides Menzel-Glaser, Germany J1800AMNZ
Tissue-Tek OCT mounting media VWR CHEMICALS 361603E
Triglycerides colorimetric assay kit Cayman Chemical 10010303
Ultrasonic bath Bandelin Sonorex  TK 52
Vannas spring scissors - 3 mm
cutting edge
Fine Science Tools, Germany 15000-00
ZEN Black software Zeiss

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