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Open Access Methodology article

Global parameter estimation methods for stochastic biochemical systems

Suresh Kumar Poovathingal and Rudiyanto Gunawan*

Author Affiliations

Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, National University of Singapore, 4 Engineering Drive 4, 117576, Singapore

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BMC Bioinformatics 2010, 11:414  doi:10.1186/1471-2105-11-414

Published: 6 August 2010



The importance of stochasticity in cellular processes having low number of molecules has resulted in the development of stochastic models such as chemical master equation. As in other modelling frameworks, the accompanying rate constants are important for the end-applications like analyzing system properties (e.g. robustness) or predicting the effects of genetic perturbations. Prior knowledge of kinetic constants is usually limited and the model identification routine typically includes parameter estimation from experimental data. Although the subject of parameter estimation is well-established for deterministic models, it is not yet routine for the chemical master equation. In addition, recent advances in measurement technology have made the quantification of genetic substrates possible to single molecular levels. Thus, the purpose of this work is to develop practical and effective methods for estimating kinetic model parameters in the chemical master equation and other stochastic models from single cell and cell population experimental data.


Three parameter estimation methods are proposed based on the maximum likelihood and density function distance, including probability and cumulative density functions. Since stochastic models such as chemical master equations are typically solved using a Monte Carlo approach in which only a finite number of Monte Carlo realizations are computationally practical, specific considerations are given to account for the effect of finite sampling in the histogram binning of the state density functions. Applications to three practical case studies showed that while maximum likelihood method can effectively handle low replicate measurements, the density function distance methods, particularly the cumulative density function distance estimation, are more robust in estimating the parameters with consistently higher accuracy, even for systems showing multimodality.


The parameter estimation methodologies described in this work have provided an effective and practical approach in the estimation of kinetic parameters of stochastic systems from either sparse or dense cell population data. Nevertheless, similar to kinetic parameter estimation in other modelling frameworks, not all parameters can be estimated accurately, which is a common problem arising from the lack of complete parameter identifiability from the available data.