Modular cell biology: from retroactivity to insulation

6 November 2009

Domitilla Del Vecchio
Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor


Modularity plays a fundamental role in the prediction of the behavior of a system from the behavior of its components, guaranteeing that the properties of individual components do not change upon interconnection. Just as electrical, hydraulic, and other physical systems often do not display modularity, nor do many biochemical systems, and specifically, genetic and signaling networks. Here, we study the effect of interconnections on the input/output dynamic characteristics of transcriptional components, focusing on a property, which we call "retroactivity" that plays a role similar to impedance in electrical circuits. In order to attenuate the effect of retroactivity and enforce modularity, we propose to design insulation devices based on a feedback mechanism inspired by the design of amplifiers in electronics and provide a bio-molecular realization.

We show that natural bio-molecular systems already employ recurrent motifs, that is, phosphorylation/dephosphorylation cycles, which can work as excellent insulation devices.

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