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Open Access Methodology article

Adaptive coarse-grained Monte Carlo simulation of reaction and diffusion dynamics in heterogeneous plasma membranes

Stuart Collins, Michail Stamatakis and Dionisios G Vlachos*

Author Affiliations

Department of Chemical Engineering, University of Delaware, Newark, DE 19716, USA

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BMC Bioinformatics 2010, 11:218  doi:10.1186/1471-2105-11-218

Published: 29 April 2010



An adaptive coarse-grained (kinetic) Monte Carlo (ACGMC) simulation framework is applied to reaction and diffusion dynamics in inhomogeneous domains. The presented model is relevant to the diffusion and dimerization dynamics of epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) in the presence of plasma membrane heterogeneity and specifically receptor clustering. We perform simulations representing EGFR cluster dissipation in heterogeneous plasma membranes consisting of higher density clusters of receptors surrounded by low population areas using the ACGMC method. We further investigate the effect of key parameters on the cluster lifetime.


Coarse-graining of dimerization, rather than of diffusion, may lead to computational error. It is shown that the ACGMC method is an effective technique to minimize error in diffusion-reaction processes and is superior to the microscopic kinetic Monte Carlo simulation in terms of computational cost while retaining accuracy. The low computational cost enables sensitivity analysis calculations. Sensitivity analysis indicates that it may be possible to retain clusters of receptors over the time scale of minutes under suitable conditions and the cluster lifetime may depend on both receptor density and cluster size.


The ACGMC method is an ideal platform to resolve large length and time scales in heterogeneous biological systems well beyond the plasma membrane and the EGFR system studied here. Our results demonstrate that cluster size must be considered in conjunction with receptor density, as they synergistically affect EGFR cluster lifetime. Further, the cluster lifetime being of the order of several seconds suggests that any mechanisms responsible for EGFR aggregation must operate on shorter timescales (at most a fraction of a second), to overcome dissipation and produce stable clusters observed experimentally.