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PLoS One. 2012;7(5):e36679. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0036679. Epub 2012 May 31.

A self-organized model for cell-differentiation based on variations of molecular decay rates.

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  • 1Section for Science of Complex Systems/CeMSIIS, Medical University of Vienna, Vienna, Austria.


Systemic properties of living cells are the result of molecular dynamics governed by so-called genetic regulatory networks (GRN). These networks capture all possible features of cells and are responsible for the immense levels of adaptation characteristic to living systems. At any point in time only small subsets of these networks are active. Any active subset of the GRN leads to the expression of particular sets of molecules (expression modes). The subsets of active networks change over time, leading to the observed complex dynamics of expression patterns. Understanding of these dynamics becomes increasingly important in systems biology and medicine. While the importance of transcription rates and catalytic interactions has been widely recognized in modeling genetic regulatory systems, the understanding of the role of degradation of biochemical agents (mRNA, protein) in regulatory dynamics remains limited. Recent experimental data suggests that there exists a functional relation between mRNA and protein decay rates and expression modes. In this paper we propose a model for the dynamics of successions of sequences of active subnetworks of the GRN. The model is able to reproduce key characteristics of molecular dynamics, including homeostasis, multi-stability, periodic dynamics, alternating activity, differentiability, and self-organized critical dynamics. Moreover the model allows to naturally understand the mechanism behind the relation between decay rates and expression modes. The model explains recent experimental observations that decay-rates (or turnovers) vary between differentiated tissue-classes at a general systemic level and highlights the role of intracellular decay rate control mechanisms in cell differentiation.

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