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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Classification of transient behaviours in a time-dependent toggle switch model

Berta Verd12, Anton Crombach12 and Johannes Jaeger12*

Author Affiliations

1 EMBL/CRG Research Unit in Systems Biology, Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG), Barcelona, Spain

2 , Universitat Pompeu Fabra (UPF), Barcelona, Spain

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BMC Systems Biology 2014, 8:43  doi:10.1186/1752-0509-8-43

Published: 4 April 2014

Abstract

Background

Waddington’s epigenetic landscape is an intuitive metaphor for the developmental and evolutionary potential of biological regulatory processes. It emphasises time-dependence and transient behaviour. Nowadays, we can derive this landscape by modelling a specific regulatory network as a dynamical system and calculating its so-called potential surface. In this sense, potential surfaces are the mathematical equivalent of the Waddingtonian landscape metaphor. In order to fully capture the time-dependent (non-autonomous) transient behaviour of biological processes, we must be able to characterise potential landscapes and how they change over time. However, currently available mathematical tools focus on the asymptotic (steady-state) behaviour of autonomous dynamical systems, which restricts how biological systems are studied.

Results

We present a pragmatic first step towards a methodology for dealing with transient behaviours in non-autonomous systems. We propose a classification scheme for different kinds of such dynamics based on the simulation of a simple genetic toggle-switch model with time-variable parameters. For this low-dimensional system, we can calculate and explicitly visualise numerical approximations to the potential landscape. Focussing on transient dynamics in non-autonomous systems reveals a range of interesting and biologically relevant behaviours that would be missed in steady-state analyses of autonomous systems. Our simulation-based approach allows us to identify four qualitatively different kinds of dynamics: transitions, pursuits, and two kinds of captures. We describe these in detail, and illustrate the usefulness of our classification scheme by providing a number of examples that demonstrate how it can be employed to gain specific mechanistic insights into the dynamics of gene regulation.

Conclusions

The practical aim of our proposed classification scheme is to make the analysis of explicitly time-dependent transient behaviour tractable, and to encourage the wider use of non-autonomous models in systems biology. Our method is applicable to a large class of biological processes.