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Open Access Methodology article

A procedure for the estimation over time of metabolic fluxes in scenarios where measurements are uncertain and/or insufficient

Francisco Llaneras* and Jesús Picó

Author Affiliations

Dept. of Systems Engineering and Control, Technical University of Valencia, Camino de Vera s/n, 46022 Valencia, Spain

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BMC Bioinformatics 2007, 8:421  doi:10.1186/1471-2105-8-421

Published: 30 October 2007



An indirect approach is usually used to estimate the metabolic fluxes of an organism: couple the available measurements with known biological constraints (e.g. stoichiometry). Typically this estimation is done under a static point of view. Therefore, the fluxes so obtained are only valid while the environmental conditions and the cell state remain stable. However, estimating the evolution over time of the metabolic fluxes is valuable to investigate the dynamic behaviour of an organism and also to monitor industrial processes. Although Metabolic Flux Analysis can be successively applied with this aim, this approach has two drawbacks: i) sometimes it cannot be used because there is a lack of measurable fluxes, and ii) the uncertainty of experimental measurements cannot be considered. The Flux Balance Analysis could be used instead, but the assumption of optimal behaviour of the organism brings other difficulties.


We propose a procedure to estimate the evolution of the metabolic fluxes that is structured as follows: 1) measure the concentrations of extracellular species and biomass, 2) convert this data to measured fluxes and 3) estimate the non-measured fluxes using the Flux Spectrum Approach, a variant of Metabolic Flux Analysis that overcomes the difficulties mentioned above without assuming optimal behaviour. We apply the procedure to a real problem taken from the literature: estimate the metabolic fluxes during a cultivation of CHO cells in batch mode. We show that it provides a reliable and rich estimation of the non-measured fluxes, thanks to considering measurements uncertainty and reversibility constraints. We also demonstrate that this procedure can estimate the non-measured fluxes even when there is a lack of measurable species. In addition, it offers a new method to deal with inconsistency.


This work introduces a procedure to estimate time-varying metabolic fluxes that copes with the insufficiency of measured species and with its intrinsic uncertainty. The procedure can be used as an off-line analysis of previously collected data, providing an insight into the dynamic behaviour of the organism. It can be also profitable to the on-line monitoring of a running process, mitigating the traditional lack of reliable on-line sensors in industrial environments.