BACKGROUND: Despite significant progress in imaging technologies, the efficient detection of edges and elongated features in images of intracellular and multicellular structures acquired using light or electron microscopy is a challenging and time consuming task in many laboratories. RESULTS: We present a novel method, based on the discrete curvelet transform, to extract a directional field from the image that indicates the location and direction of the edges. This directional field is then processed using the non-maximal suppression and thresholding steps of the Canny algorithm to trace along the edges and mark them. Optionally, the edges may then be extended along the directions given by the curvelets to provide a more connected edge map. We compare our scheme to the Canny edge detector and an edge detector based on Gabor filters, and show that our scheme performs better in detecting larger, elongated structures possibly composed of several step or ridge edges. CONCLUSION: The proposed curvelet based edge detection is a novel and competitive approach for imaging problems. We expect that the methodology and the accompanying software will facilitate and improve edge detection in images available using light or electron microscopy.