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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Thermodynamic modeling of transcription: sensitivity analysis differentiates biological mechanism from mathematical model-induced effects

Jacqueline M Dresch1, Xiaozhou Liu2, David N Arnosti2* and Ahmet Ay34*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Mathematics, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, USA

2 Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, USA

3 Department of Biology, Colgate University, Hamilton, NY, USA

4 Department of Mathematics, Colgate University, Hamilton, NY, USA

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BMC Systems Biology 2010, 4:142  doi:10.1186/1752-0509-4-142

Published: 24 October 2010



Quantitative models of gene expression generate parameter values that can shed light on biological features such as transcription factor activity, cooperativity, and local effects of repressors. An important element in such investigations is sensitivity analysis, which determines how strongly a model's output reacts to variations in parameter values. Parameters of low sensitivity may not be accurately estimated, leading to unwarranted conclusions. Low sensitivity may reflect the nature of the biological data, or it may be a result of the model structure. Here, we focus on the analysis of thermodynamic models, which have been used extensively to analyze gene transcription. Extracted parameter values have been interpreted biologically, but until now little attention has been given to parameter sensitivity in this context.


We apply local and global sensitivity analyses to two recent transcriptional models to determine the sensitivity of individual parameters. We show that in one case, values for repressor efficiencies are very sensitive, while values for protein cooperativities are not, and provide insights on why these differential sensitivities stem from both biological effects and the structure of the applied models. In a second case, we demonstrate that parameters that were thought to prove the system's dependence on activator-activator cooperativity are relatively insensitive. We show that there are numerous parameter sets that do not satisfy the relationships proferred as the optimal solutions, indicating that structural differences between the two types of transcriptional enhancers analyzed may not be as simple as altered activator cooperativity.


Our results emphasize the need for sensitivity analysis to examine model construction and forms of biological data used for modeling transcriptional processes, in order to determine the significance of estimated parameter values for thermodynamic models. Knowledge of parameter sensitivities can provide the necessary context to determine how modeling results should be interpreted in biological systems.