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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Network topology and parameter estimation: from experimental design methods to gene regulatory network kinetics using a community based approach

Pablo Meyer1*, Thomas Cokelaer2, Deepak Chandran3, Kyung Hyuk Kim4, Po-Ru Loh5, George Tucker5, Mark Lipson5, Bonnie Berger5, Clemens Kreutz8, Andreas Raue78, Bernhard Steiert8, Jens Timmer68, Erhan Bilal1, DREAM 6&7 Parameter Estimation consortium, Herbert M Sauro4, Gustavo Stolovitzky1 and Julio Saez-Rodriguez2*

Author Affiliations

1 T.J. Watson Research Center, Yorktown Heights, New York, USA

2 European Molecular Biology Laboratory, European Bioinformatics Institute, Cambridge, UK

3 Autodesk Research, San Francisco, CA, USA

4 Department of Bioengineering, University of Washington, William H. Foege Building, Box 355061, Seattle, WA 98195-5061, USA

5 Department of Mathematics, MIT, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA

6 BIOSS Centre for Biological Signalling Studies, University of Freiburg, Schänzlestr. 18, 79104 Freiburg, Germany

7 Merrimack Pharmaceuticals One Kendall Square, Suite B7201, Cambridge, MA 02139, USA

8 Physics Department, University of Freiburg, Hermann-Herder Str.3, 79104 Freiburg, Germany

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BMC Systems Biology 2014, 8:13  doi:10.1186/1752-0509-8-13

Published: 7 February 2014



Accurate estimation of parameters of biochemical models is required to characterize the dynamics of molecular processes. This problem is intimately linked to identifying the most informative experiments for accomplishing such tasks. While significant progress has been made, effective experimental strategies for parameter identification and for distinguishing among alternative network topologies remain unclear. We approached these questions in an unbiased manner using a unique community-based approach in the context of the DREAM initiative (Dialogue for Reverse Engineering Assessment of Methods). We created an in silico test framework under which participants could probe a network with hidden parameters by requesting a range of experimental assays; results of these experiments were simulated according to a model of network dynamics only partially revealed to participants.


We proposed two challenges; in the first, participants were given the topology and underlying biochemical structure of a 9-gene regulatory network and were asked to determine its parameter values. In the second challenge, participants were given an incomplete topology with 11 genes and asked to find three missing links in the model. In both challenges, a budget was provided to buy experimental data generated in silico with the model and mimicking the features of different common experimental techniques, such as microarrays and fluorescence microscopy. Data could be bought at any stage, allowing participants to implement an iterative loop of experiments and computation.


A total of 19 teams participated in this competition. The results suggest that the combination of state-of-the-art parameter estimation and a varied set of experimental methods using a few datasets, mostly fluorescence imaging data, can accurately determine parameters of biochemical models of gene regulation. However, the task is considerably more difficult if the gene network topology is not completely defined, as in challenge 2. Importantly, we found that aggregating independent parameter predictions and network topology across submissions creates a solution that can be better than the one from the best-performing submission.