N.A. Shah and C.A. Sarkar. "Robust network topologies for generating switch-like cellular responses." PLOS Computational Biology, 7:e1002085 (2011).
Signaling networks that convert graded stimuli into binary, all-or-none cellular responses are critical in processes ranging from cell-cycle control to lineage commitment. To exhaustively enumerate topologies that exhibit this switch-like behavior, we simulated all possible two- and three-component networks on random parameter sets, and assessed the resulting response profiles for both steepness (ultrasensitivity) and extent of memory (bistability). Simulations were used to study purely enzymatic networks, purely transcriptional networks, and hybrid enzymatic/transcriptional networks, and the topologies in each class were rank ordered by parametric robustness (i.e., the percentage of applied parameter sets exhibiting ultrasensitivity or bistability). Results reveal that the distribution of network robustness is highly skewed, with the most robust topologies clustering into a small number of motifs. Hybrid networks are the most robust in generating ultrasensitivity (up to 28%) and bistability (up to 18%); strikingly, a purely transcriptional framework is the most fragile in generating either ultrasensitive (up to 3%) or bistable (up to 1%) responses. The disparity in robustness among the network classes is due in part to zero-order ultrasensitivity, an enzyme-specific phenomenon, which repeatedly emerges as a particularly robust mechanism for generating nonlinearity and can act as a building block for switch-like responses. We also highlight experimentally studied examples of topologies enabling switching behavior, in both native and synthetic systems, that rank highly in our simulations. This unbiased approach for identifying topologies capable of a given response may be useful in discovering new natural motifs and in designing robust synthetic gene networks.
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