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Open Access Research article

A simple work flow for biologically inspired model reduction - application to early JAK-STAT signaling

Tom Quaiser12, Anna Dittrich34, Fred Schaper34 and Martin Mönnigmann1*

Author Affiliations

1 Automatic Control and Systems Theory, Ruhr University Bochum, D-44801 Bochum, Germany

2 Process Systems Engineering, RWTH Aachen University, D-52064 Aachen, Germany

3 Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Medical School RWTH Aachen University, D-52074 Aachen, Germany

4 Systems Biology, Magdeburg Centre for Systems Biology (MaCS), Otto von Guericke University, D-39120 Magdeburg, Germany

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BMC Systems Biology 2011, 5:30  doi:10.1186/1752-0509-5-30

Published: 21 February 2011



Modeling of biological pathways is a key issue in systems biology. When constructing a model, it is tempting to incorporate all known interactions of pathway species, which results in models with a large number of unknown parameters. Fortunately, unknown parameters need not necessarily be measured directly, but some parameter values can be estimated indirectly by fitting the model to experimental data. However, parameter fitting, or, more precisely, maximum likelihood parameter estimation, only provides valid results, if the complexity of the model is in balance with the amount and quality of the experimental data. If this is the case the model is said to be identifiable for the given data. If a model turns out to be unidentifiable, two steps can be taken. Either additional experiments need to be conducted, or the model has to be simplified.


We propose a systematic procedure for model simplification, which consists of the following steps: estimate the parameters of the model, create an identifiability ranking for the estimated parameters, and simplify the model based on the identifiability analysis results. These steps need to be applied iteratively until the resulting model is identifiable, or equivalently, until parameter variances are small. We choose parameter variances as stopping criterion, since they are concise and easy to interpret. For both, the parameter estimation and the calculation of parameter variances, multi-start parameter estimations are run on a parallel cluster. In contrast to related work in systems biology, we do not suggest simplifying a model by fixing some of its parameters, but change the structure of the model.


We apply the proposed approach to a model of early signaling events in the JAK-STAT pathway. The resulting model is not only identifiable with small parameter variances, but also shows the best trade-off between goodness of fit and model complexity.