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Front Physiol. 2018 Nov 27;9:1659. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2018.01659. eCollection 2018.

Gene Regulatory Network Modeling of Macrophage Differentiation Corroborates the Continuum Hypothesis of Polarization States.

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Department of Biology, University of Rome Tor Vergata, Rome, Italy.
Department of Mathematics and Statistics, American University of Sharjah, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates.
Institute for Applied Computing, National Research Council of Italy, Rome, Italy.
Data Science Program, Sapienza University of Rome, Rome, Italy.
Fondazione Santa Lucia Istituto di Ricovero e Cura a Carattere Scientifico (IRCCS), Rome, Italy.


Macrophages derived from monocyte precursors undergo specific polarization processes which are influenced by the local tissue environment: classically activated (M1) macrophages, with a pro-inflammatory activity and a role of effector cells in Th1 cellular immune responses, and alternatively activated (M2) macrophages, with anti-inflammatory functions and involved in immunosuppression and tissue repair. At least three different subsets of M2 macrophages, namely, M2a, M2b, and M2c, are characterized in the literature based on their eliciting signals. The activation and polarization of macrophages is achieved through many, often intertwined, signaling pathways. To describe the logical relationships among the genes involved in macrophage polarization, we used a computational modeling methodology, namely, logical (Boolean) modeling of gene regulation. We integrated experimental data and knowledge available in the literature to construct a logical network model for the gene regulation driving macrophage polarization to the M1, M2a, M2b, and M2c phenotypes. Using the software GINsim and BoolNet, we analyzed the network dynamics under different conditions and perturbations to understand how they affect cell polarization. Dynamic simulations of the network model, enacting the most relevant biological conditions, showed coherence with the observed behavior of in vivo macrophages. The model could correctly reproduce the polarization toward the four main phenotypes as well as to several hybrid phenotypes, which are known to be experimentally associated to physiological and pathological conditions. We surmise that shifts among different phenotypes in the model mimic the hypothetical continuum of macrophage polarization, with M1 and M2 being the extremes of an uninterrupted sequence of states. Furthermore, model simulations suggest that anti-inflammatory macrophages are resilient to shift back to the pro-inflammatory phenotype.


differentiation; gene regulating network; immune system; macrophage; model; phenotype; polarization

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