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PLoS One. 2018 Feb 12;13(2):e0192087. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0192087. eCollection 2018.

A drift-diffusion checkpoint model predicts a highly variable and growth-factor-sensitive portion of the cell cycle G1 phase.

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Department of Mathematical Sciences, Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro, TN 37132, United States of America.
Department of Biochemistry, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, Nashville, TN 37232, United States of America.


Even among isogenic cells, the time to progress through the cell cycle, or the intermitotic time (IMT), is highly variable. This variability has been a topic of research for several decades and numerous mathematical models have been proposed to explain it. Previously, we developed a top-down, stochastic drift-diffusion+threshold (DDT) model of a cell cycle checkpoint and showed that it can accurately describe experimentally-derived IMT distributions [Leander R, Allen EJ, Garbett SP, Tyson DR, Quaranta V. Derivation and experimental comparison of cell-division probability densities. J. Theor. Biol. 2014;358:129-135]. Here, we use the DDT modeling approach for both descriptive and predictive data analysis. We develop a custom numerical method for the reliable maximum likelihood estimation of model parameters in the absence of a priori knowledge about the number of detectable checkpoints. We employ this method to fit different variants of the DDT model (with one, two, and three checkpoints) to IMT data from multiple cell lines under different growth conditions and drug treatments. We find that a two-checkpoint model best describes the data, consistent with the notion that the cell cycle can be broadly separated into two steps: the commitment to divide and the process of cell division. The model predicts one part of the cell cycle to be highly variable and growth factor sensitive while the other is less variable and relatively refractory to growth factor signaling. Using experimental data that separates IMT into G1 vs. S, G2, and M phases, we show that the model-predicted growth-factor-sensitive part of the cell cycle corresponds to a portion of G1, consistent with previous studies suggesting that the commitment step is the primary source of IMT variability. These results demonstrate that a simple stochastic model, with just a handful of parameters, can provide fundamental insights into the biological underpinnings of cell cycle progression.

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