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This article is part of the supplement: Selected articles from The 5th IEEE International Conference on Systems Biology (ISB 2011)

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Characterizing criticality of proteins by systems dynamics: Escherichia coli central carbon metabolism as a working example

Ru-Dong Li1 and Lei Liu12*

Author Affiliations

1 Key Laboratory of Systems Biology, Shanghai Institutes for Biological Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Shanghai, China

2 Shanghai Center for Bioinformatics Technology, Shanghai, China

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BMC Systems Biology 2012, 6(Suppl 1):S11  doi:10.1186/1752-0509-6-S1-S11

Published: 16 July 2012



Systems biology calls for studying system-level properties of genes and proteins rather than their individual chemical/biological properties, regarding the bio-molecules as system components. By characterizing how critical the components are to the system and classifying them accordingly, we can study the underlying complex mechanisms, facilitating researches in drug target selection, metabolic engineering, complex disease, etc. Up to date, most studies aiming at this goal are confined to the topology-based or flux-analysis approaches. However, proteins have tertiary structures and specific functions, especially in metabolic systems. Thus topological properties such as connectivity, path length, etc., are not good surrogates for protein properties. Also, the manner of individual sensitivity analysis in most flux-analysis approaches cannot reveal the simultaneous impacts on collateral components as well as the overall impact on the system, thus lacking in system-level perspective.


In the present work, we developed a method to directly assess protein system-level properties based on system dynamics and in silico knockouts, regarding to the conceptual term "criticality". Applying the method to E. coli central carbon metabolic system, we found that multiple enzymes including phosphoglycerate kinase, enolase, transketolase-b, etc., had critical roles in the system in terms of both system states and dynamical stability. In contrast, another set of enzymes including glucose-6-phosphate isomerise, pyruvate kinase, phosphoglucomutase, etc., exerted very little influences when deleted. The finding is consistent with experimental characterization of metabolic essentiality and other studies on E. coli gene essentiality and functions. We also found that enzymes could affect distant metabolites or enzymes even greater than a close neighbour and asymmetry in system-level properties of enzymes catalyzing alternative pathways could give rise to local flux compensation.


Our method creates a different angle for evaluating protein criticality to a biological system from the conventional methodologies. Moreover, the method leads to consistent results with experimental references, showing its efficiency in studying protein system-level properties. Besides working on metabolic systems, the application of the method can be extended to other kinds of bio-systems to reveal the constitutive/functional properties of system building blocks.