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Open Access Research article

A comparison of approximation techniques for variance-based sensitivity analysis of biochemical reaction systems

Hong-Xuan Zhang and John Goutsias*

Author Affiliations

Whitaker Biomedical Engineering Institute, The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD 21218, USA

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BMC Bioinformatics 2010, 11:246  doi:10.1186/1471-2105-11-246

Published: 12 May 2010



Sensitivity analysis is an indispensable tool for the analysis of complex systems. In a recent paper, we have introduced a thermodynamically consistent variance-based sensitivity analysis approach for studying the robustness and fragility properties of biochemical reaction systems under uncertainty in the standard chemical potentials of the activated complexes of the reactions and the standard chemical potentials of the molecular species. In that approach, key sensitivity indices were estimated by Monte Carlo sampling, which is computationally very demanding and impractical for large biochemical reaction systems. Computationally efficient algorithms are needed to make variance-based sensitivity analysis applicable to realistic cellular networks, modeled by biochemical reaction systems that consist of a large number of reactions and molecular species.


We present four techniques, derivative approximation (DA), polynomial approximation (PA), Gauss-Hermite integration (GHI), and orthonormal Hermite approximation (OHA), for analytically approximating the variance-based sensitivity indices associated with a biochemical reaction system. By using a well-known model of the mitogen-activated protein kinase signaling cascade as a case study, we numerically compare the approximation quality of these techniques against traditional Monte Carlo sampling. Our results indicate that, although DA is computationally the most attractive technique, special care should be exercised when using it for sensitivity analysis, since it may only be accurate at low levels of uncertainty. On the other hand, PA, GHI, and OHA are computationally more demanding than DA but can work well at high levels of uncertainty. GHI results in a slightly better accuracy than PA, but it is more difficult to implement. OHA produces the most accurate approximation results and can be implemented in a straightforward manner. It turns out that the computational cost of the four approximation techniques considered in this paper is orders of magnitude smaller than traditional Monte Carlo estimation. Software, coded in MATLAB®, which implements all sensitivity analysis techniques discussed in this paper, is available free of charge.


Estimating variance-based sensitivity indices of a large biochemical reaction system is a computationally challenging task that can only be addressed via approximations. Among the methods presented in this paper, a technique based on orthonormal Hermite polynomials seems to be an acceptable candidate for the job, producing very good approximation results for a wide range of uncertainty levels in a fraction of the time required by traditional Monte Carlo sampling.