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Open Access Highly Accessed Methodology article

A general framework for modeling growth and division of mammalian cells

John H Gauthier* and Phillip I Pohl

Author Affiliations

Sandia National Laboratories, P.O. Box 5800, Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA 87185-1188

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BMC Systems Biology 2011, 5:3  doi:10.1186/1752-0509-5-3

Published: 6 January 2011



Modeling the cell-division cycle has been practiced for many years. As time has progressed, this work has gone from understanding the basic principles to addressing distinct biological problems, e.g., the nature of the restriction point, how checkpoints operate, the nonlinear dynamics of the cell cycle, the effect of localization, etc. Most models consist of coupled ordinary differential equations developed by the researchers, restricted to deal with the interactions of a limited number of molecules. In the future, cell-cycle modeling--and indeed all modeling of complex biologic processes--will increase in scope and detail.


A framework for modeling complex cell-biologic processes is proposed here. The framework is based on two constructs: one describing the entire lifecycle of a molecule and the second describing the basic cellular machinery. Use of these constructs allows complex models to be built in a straightforward manner that fosters rigor and completeness. To demonstrate the framework, an example model of the mammalian cell cycle is presented that consists of several hundred differential equations of simple mass action kinetics. The model calculates energy usage, amino acid and nucleotide usage, membrane transport, RNA synthesis and destruction, and protein synthesis and destruction for 33 proteins to give an in-depth look at the cell cycle.


The framework presented here addresses how to develop increasingly descriptive models of complex cell-biologic processes. The example model of cellular growth and division constructed with the framework demonstrates that large structured models can be created with the framework, and these models can generate non-trivial descriptions of cellular processes. Predictions from the example model include those at both the molecular level--e.g., Wee1 spontaneously reactivates--and at the system level--e.g., pathways for timing-critical processes must shut down redundant pathways. A future effort is to automatically estimate parameter values that are insensitive to changes.