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Open Access Research article

Hierarchical structure and modules in the Escherichia coli transcriptional regulatory network revealed by a new top-down approach

Hong-Wu Ma1, Jan Buer23 and An-Ping Zeng1*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Genome Analysis, GBF – German Research Center for Biotechnology, Mascheroder Weg 1, 38124 Braunschweig, Germany

2 Department of Mucosal Immunity, GBF – German Research Center for Biotechnology, Mascheroder Weg 1, 38124 Braunschweig, Germany

3 Medical Microbiology and Hospital Hygiene, Medical School Hannover, Carl-Neuberg-Str. 1, 30625 Hannover, Germany

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BMC Bioinformatics 2004, 5:199  doi:10.1186/1471-2105-5-199

Published: 16 December 2004

Abstract

Background

Cellular functions are coordinately carried out by groups of genes forming functional modules. Identifying such modules in the transcriptional regulatory network (TRN) of organisms is important for understanding the structure and function of these fundamental cellular networks and essential for the emerging modular biology. So far, the global connectivity structure of TRN has not been well studied and consequently not applied for the identification of functional modules. Moreover, network motifs such as feed forward loop are recently proposed to be basic building blocks of TRN. However, their relationship to functional modules is not clear.

Results

In this work we proposed a top-down approach to identify modules in the TRN of E. coli. By studying the global connectivity structure of the regulatory network, we first revealed a five-layer hierarchical structure in which all the regulatory relationships are downward. Based on this regulatory hierarchy, we developed a new method to decompose the regulatory network into functional modules and to identify global regulators governing multiple modules. As a result, 10 global regulators and 39 modules were identified and shown to have well defined functions. We then investigated the distribution and composition of the two basic network motifs (feed forward loop and bi-fan motif) in the hierarchical structure of TRN. We found that most of these network motifs include global regulators, indicating that these motifs are not basic building blocks of modules since modules should not contain global regulators.

Conclusion

The transcriptional regulatory network of E. coli possesses a multi-layer hierarchical modular structure without feedback regulation at transcription level. This hierarchical structure builds the basis for a new and simple decomposition method which is suitable for the identification of functional modules and global regulators in the transcriptional regulatory network of E. coli. Analysis of the distribution of feed forward loops and bi-fan motifs in the hierarchical structure suggests that these network motifs are not elementary building blocks of functional modules in the transcriptional regulatory network of E. coli.