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PLoS Comput Biol. 2009 Mar;5(3):e1000319. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1000319. Epub 2009 Mar 20.

Quantifying global tolerance of biochemical systems: design implications for moiety-transfer cycles.

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Biological Chemistry Group, Chemistry Department, University of Coimbra, Coimbra, Portugal.


Robustness of organisms is widely observed although difficult to precisely characterize. Performance can remain nearly constant within some neighborhood of the normal operating regime, leading to homeostasis, but then abruptly break down with pathological consequences beyond this neighborhood. Currently, there is no generic approach to identifying boundaries where local performance deteriorates abruptly, and this has hampered understanding of the molecular basis of biological robustness. Here we introduce a generic approach for characterizing boundaries between operational regimes based on the piecewise power-law representation of the system's components. This conceptual framework allows us to define "global tolerance" as the ratio between the normal value of a parameter and the value at such a boundary. We illustrate the utility of this concept for a class of moiety-transfer cycles, which is a widespread module in biology. Our results show a region of "best" local performance surrounded by "poor" regions; also, selection for improved local performance often pushes the operating values away from regime boundaries, thus increasing global tolerance. These predictions agree with experimental data from the reduced nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide phosphate (NADPH) redox cycle of human erythrocytes.

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