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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

The smallest chemical reaction system with bistability

Thomas Wilhelm

Author Affiliations

Theoretical Systems Biology, Institute of Food Research, Norwich Research Park, Colney Lane, Norwich NR4 7UA, UK

BMC Systems Biology 2009, 3:90  doi:10.1186/1752-0509-3-90

Published: 8 September 2009

Abstract

Background

Bistability underlies basic biological phenomena, such as cell division, differentiation, cancer onset, and apoptosis. So far biologists identified two necessary conditions for bistability: positive feedback and ultrasensitivity.

Results

Biological systems are based upon elementary mono- and bimolecular chemical reactions. In order to definitely clarify all necessary conditions for bistability we here present the corresponding minimal system. According to our definition, it contains the minimal number of (i) reactants, (ii) reactions, and (iii) terms in the corresponding ordinary differential equations (decreasing importance from i-iii). The minimal bistable system contains two reactants and four irreversible reactions (three bimolecular, one monomolecular).

We discuss the roles of the reactions with respect to the necessary conditions for bistability: two reactions comprise the positive feedback loop, a third reaction filters out small stimuli thus enabling a stable 'off' state, and the fourth reaction prevents explosions. We argue that prevention of explosion is a third general necessary condition for bistability, which is so far lacking discussion in the literature.

Moreover, in addition to proving that in two-component systems three steady states are necessary for bistability (five for tristability, etc.), we also present a simple general method to design such systems: one just needs one production and three different degradation mechanisms (one production, five degradations for tristability, etc.). This helps modelling multistable systems and it is important for corresponding synthetic biology projects.

Conclusion

The presented minimal bistable system finally clarifies the often discussed question for the necessary conditions for bistability. The three necessary conditions are: positive feedback, a mechanism to filter out small stimuli and a mechanism to prevent explosions. This is important for modelling bistability with simple systems and for synthetically designing new bistable systems. Our simple model system is also well suited for corresponding teaching purposes.