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Open Access Research article

Regulatory network modelling of iron acquisition by a fungal pathogen in contact with epithelial cells

Jörg Linde1*, Duncan Wilson2, Bernhard Hube2 and Reinhard Guthke1

Author Affiliations

1 Research Group Systems Biology/Bioinformatics, Leibniz-Institute for Natural Product Research and Infection Biology-Hans-Knoell-Institute, Beutenbergstraße 11a, 07745 Jena, Germany

2 Department Microbial Pathogenicity Mechanisms, Leibniz-Institute for Natural Product Research and Infection Biology-Hans-Knoell-Institute, Beutenbergstraße 11a, 07745 Jena, Germany

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BMC Systems Biology 2010, 4:148  doi:10.1186/1752-0509-4-148

Published: 4 November 2010



Reverse engineering of gene regulatory networks can be used to predict regulatory interactions of an organism faced with environmental changes, but can prove problematic, especially when focusing on complicated multi-factorial processes. Candida albicans is a major human fungal pathogen. During the infection process, this fungus is able to adapt to conditions of very low iron availability. Such adaptation is an important virulence attribute of virtually all pathogenic microbes. Understanding the regulation of iron acquisition genes will extend our knowledge of the complex regulatory changes during the infection process and might identify new potential drug targets. Thus, there is a need for efficient modelling approaches predicting key regulatory events of iron acquisition genes during the infection process.


This study deals with the regulation of C. albicans iron uptake genes during adhesion to and invasion into human oral epithelial cells. A reverse engineering strategy is presented, which is able to infer regulatory networks on the basis of gene expression data, making use of relevant selection criteria such as sparseness and robustness. An exhaustive use of available knowledge from different data sources improved the network prediction. The predicted regulatory network proposes a number of new target genes for the transcriptional regulators Rim101, Hap3, Sef1 and Tup1. Furthermore, the molecular mode of action for Tup1 is clarified. Finally, regulatory interactions between the transcription factors themselves are proposed. This study presents a model describing how C. albicans may regulate iron acquisition during contact with and invasion of human oral epithelial cells. There is evidence that some of the proposed regulatory interactions might also occur during oral infection.


This study focuses on a typical problem in Systems Biology where an interesting biological phenomenon is studied using a small number of available experimental data points. To overcome this limitation, a special modelling strategy was used which identifies sparse and robust networks. The data is augmented by an exhaustive search for additional data sources, helping to make proposals on regulatory interactions and to guide the modelling approach. The proposed modelling strategy is capable of finding known regulatory interactions and predicts a number of yet unknown biologically relevant regulatory interactions.