Combined confocal microscopy and stereology: a highly efficient and unbiased approach to quantitative structural measurement in tissues
Understanding the relationship of the structure of organs to their function is a key component of integrative physiological research. The structure of the organs of the body is not constant but changes, both during growth and development and under conditions of sustained stress (e g. high altitude exposure and disease). Recently, powerful new techniques have become available in molecular biology, which promise to provide novel insights into the mechanisms and consequences of these altered structure-function relationships. Conventionally structure-function relationships are studied by microscopic examination of tissue sections. However, drawing conclusions about the three-dimensional structure of an organ based on this two-dimensional information frequently leads to serious errors. The techniques of stereology allow precise and accurate quantification of structural features within three-dimensional organs that relate in a meaningful way to integrated function. For example, knowledge of changes in the total surface area of the capillary endothelium in a n organ can be related directly to changes in fluid filtration and permeability, or knowledge of total vessel length and mean radius allows deductions about vascular resistance. Confocal microscopy add s enormously to the power of stereological approaches. It reduces the difficulties and labour involved in obtaining suitable images. Moreover, when used in conjunction with new analytical software, it allows convenient application of stereology to small samples and those in which it is essential to maintain a specific orientation for interpretation. The information obtained will allow us to examine in a quantitative manner the altered structure-function relationships produced by manipulation of single genes and regulatory pathways in whole organisms.