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Open Access Highly Accessed Methodology article

Stochastic Boolean networks: An efficient approach to modeling gene regulatory networks

Jinghang Liang and Jie Han*

Author Affiliations

Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB T6G 2V4, Canada

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BMC Systems Biology 2012, 6:113  doi:10.1186/1752-0509-6-113

Published: 28 August 2012



Various computational models have been of interest due to their use in the modelling of gene regulatory networks (GRNs). As a logical model, probabilistic Boolean networks (PBNs) consider molecular and genetic noise, so the study of PBNs provides significant insights into the understanding of the dynamics of GRNs. This will ultimately lead to advances in developing therapeutic methods that intervene in the process of disease development and progression. The applications of PBNs, however, are hindered by the complexities involved in the computation of the state transition matrix and the steady-state distribution of a PBN. For a PBN with n genes and N Boolean networks, the complexity to compute the state transition matrix is O(nN22n) or O(nN2n) for a sparse matrix.


This paper presents a novel implementation of PBNs based on the notions of stochastic logic and stochastic computation. This stochastic implementation of a PBN is referred to as a stochastic Boolean network (SBN). An SBN provides an accurate and efficient simulation of a PBN without and with random gene perturbation. The state transition matrix is computed in an SBN with a complexity of O(nL2n), where L is a factor related to the stochastic sequence length. Since the minimum sequence length required for obtaining an evaluation accuracy approximately increases in a polynomial order with the number of genes, n, and the number of Boolean networks, N, usually increases exponentially with n, L is typically smaller than N, especially in a network with a large number of genes. Hence, the computational efficiency of an SBN is primarily limited by the number of genes, but not directly by the total possible number of Boolean networks. Furthermore, a time-frame expanded SBN enables an efficient analysis of the steady-state distribution of a PBN. These findings are supported by the simulation results of a simplified p53 network, several randomly generated networks and a network inferred from a T cell immune response dataset. An SBN can also implement the function of an asynchronous PBN and is potentially useful in a hybrid approach in combination with a continuous or single-molecule level stochastic model.


Stochastic Boolean networks (SBNs) are proposed as an efficient approach to modelling gene regulatory networks (GRNs). The SBN approach is able to recover biologically-proven regulatory behaviours, such as the oscillatory dynamics of the p53-Mdm2 network and the dynamic attractors in a T cell immune response network. The proposed approach can further predict the network dynamics when the genes are under perturbation, thus providing biologically meaningful insights for a better understanding of the dynamics of GRNs. The algorithms and methods described in this paper have been implemented in Matlab packages, which are attached as Additional files.