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PLoS Comput Biol. 2008 Oct;4(10):e1000197. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1000197. Epub 2008 Oct 10.

Dose-to-duration encoding and signaling beyond saturation in intracellular signaling networks.

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Department of Physics, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, United States of America.


The cellular response elicited by an environmental cue typically varies with the strength of the stimulus. For example, in the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the concentration of mating pheromone determines whether cells undergo vegetative growth, chemotropic growth, or mating. This implies that the signaling pathways responsible for detecting the stimulus and initiating a response must transmit quantitative information about the intensity of the signal. Our previous experimental results suggest that yeast encode pheromone concentration as the duration of the transmitted signal. Here we use mathematical modeling to analyze possible biochemical mechanisms for performing this "dose-to-duration" conversion. We demonstrate that modulation of signal duration increases the range of stimulus concentrations for which dose-dependent responses are possible; this increased dynamic range produces the counterintuitive result of "signaling beyond saturation" in which dose-dependent responses are still possible after apparent saturation of the receptors. We propose a mechanism for dose-to-duration encoding in the yeast pheromone pathway that is consistent with current experimental observations. Most previous investigations of information processing by signaling pathways have focused on amplitude encoding without considering temporal aspects of signal transduction. Here we demonstrate that dose-to-duration encoding provides cells with an alternative mechanism for processing and transmitting quantitative information about their surrounding environment. The ability of signaling pathways to convert stimulus strength into signal duration results directly from the nonlinear nature of these systems and emphasizes the importance of considering the dynamic properties of signaling pathways when characterizing their behavior. Understanding how signaling pathways encode and transmit quantitative information about the external environment will not only deepen our understanding of these systems but also provide insight into how to reestablish proper function of pathways that have become dysregulated by disease.

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