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J Theor Biol. 2006 Feb 21;238(4):949-61. Epub 2005 Aug 24.

Organizational invariance and metabolic closure: analysis in terms of (M,R) systems.

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Departamento de Biología, Facultad de Ciencias, Universidad de Chile, Casilla 653, Santiago, Chile.


This article analyses the work of Robert Rosen on an interpretation of metabolic networks that he called (M,R) systems. His main contribution was an attempt to prove that metabolic closure (or metabolic circularity) could be explained in purely formal terms, but his work remains very obscure and we try to clarify his line of thought. In particular, we clarify the algebraic formulation of (M,R) systems in terms of mappings and sets of mappings, which is grounded in the metaphor of metabolism as a mathematical mapping. We define Rosen's central result as the mathematical expression in which metabolism appears as a mapping f that is the solution to a fixed-point functional equation. Crucially, our analysis reveals the nature of the mapping, and shows that to have a solution the set of admissible functions representing a metabolism must be drastically smaller than Rosen's own analysis suggested that it needed to be. For the first time, we provide a mathematical example of an (M,R) system with organizational invariance, and we analyse a minimal (three-step) autocatalytic set in the context of (M,R) systems. In addition, by extending Rosen's construction, we show how one might generate self-referential objects f with the remarkable property f(f)=f, where f acts in turn as function, argument and result. We conclude that Rosen's insight, although not yet in an easily workable form, represents a valuable tool for understanding metabolic networks.

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