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Open Access Highly Accessed Methodology article

Qualitative networks: a symbolic approach to analyze biological signaling networks

Marc A Schaub, Thomas A Henzinger and Jasmin Fisher*

Author Affiliations

School of Computer and Communication Sciences EPFL, 1015 Lausanne, Switzerland

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BMC Systems Biology 2007, 1:4  doi:10.1186/1752-0509-1-4

Published: 8 January 2007

Abstract

Background

A central goal of Systems Biology is to model and analyze biological signaling pathways that interact with one another to form complex networks. Here we introduce Qualitative networks, an extension of Boolean networks. With this framework, we use formal verification methods to check whether a model is consistent with the laboratory experimental observations on which it is based. If the model does not conform to the data, we suggest a revised model and the new hypotheses are tested in-silico.

Results

We consider networks in which elements range over a small finite domain allowing more flexibility than Boolean values, and add target functions that allow to model a rich set of behaviors. We propose a symbolic algorithm for analyzing the steady state of these networks, allowing us to scale up to a system consisting of 144 elements and state spaces of approximately 1086 states. We illustrate the usefulness of this approach through a model of the interaction between the Notch and the Wnt signaling pathways in mammalian skin, and its extensive analysis.

Conclusion

We introduce an approach for constructing computational models of biological systems that extends the framework of Boolean networks and uses formal verification methods for the analysis of the model. This approach can scale to multicellular models of complex pathways, and is therefore a useful tool for the analysis of complex biological systems. The hypotheses formulated during in-silico testing suggest new avenues to explore experimentally. Hence, this approach has the potential to efficiently complement experimental studies in biology.