Although >450 different topologies can achieve the same multicellular patterning function, they can be grouped into six main classes, which operate using different underlying dynamics.Alternative designs for the same functions can therefore split into two types: (a) topology alterations that retain the same underlying dynamics and (b) alterations that utilize a completely different underlying dynamical mechanism.This segregation of networks into distinct dynamical mechanisms can be revealed by the shape of the topology atlas itself.Cell–cell communication is not usually part of the causal mechanism underlying a band-pass response during morphogen interpretation, but it can tune the result or increase robustness.
Understanding how gene regulatory networks (GRNs) achieve particular biological functions is a central question in systems biology. Systems biology promises to go beyond a case-by-case understanding of individual networks to map out the complete design space of mechanistic possibilities that underlie biological functions. Can such maps serve as useful theoretical frameworks in which to explore the general design principles for these functions? Towards addressing these questions, we created the first design space for a morphogen interpretation function.
In order to generate a design space for such a function, we enumerated all possible wiring designs of GRNs consisting of three genes and tested their ability to perform one particular morphogen interpretation function; stripe formation, as it represents a simplified form of the much studied French flag problem and is a commonly found gene expression pattern (Figure 1A). We found that only 5% of GRNs had the ability to generate a single stripe of gene expression when simulated with a fixed morphogen input in a one-dimensional model.
We hypothesized that the core mechanisms for producing the stripe of gene expression should be represented by topologies that contain only the necessary and sufficient gene–gene interactions for that function. Hence, we utilized the notions of complexity and neighborhood to generate a complexity atlas. GRNs of such an atlas (represented by nodes) are considered neighbors if they differ by a single gene–gene interaction (neighboring GRN nodes are connected by edges). Such a metagraph (graph of graphs) can then be reorganized using complexity (number of gene–gene interactions) to determine a GRNs position in the y axis, whereas GRNs are spaced in the x axis with the aim of reducing edge crossing (Figure 5A). This reorganization reveals a striking structure, where ‘stalactites' of complexity can be seen protruding from the bottom of the atlas. Each of these stalactites converges on a single ‘core' topology that by extensive analysis we find represents a distinct mechanism.
The mechanisms employ a diverse range of distinct space–time behaviors, and the underlying core topologies display design features such as modularity and feed-forward. We mapped the mechanisms to the complexity atlas by analyzing how each particular GRN of the atlas was working. The GRNs functioning via the different mechanisms are highlighted by the different colors in Figure 5A. Mechanisms thus occupy large regions of separated topology space, suggesting them to be discrete. Analyzing transitions between mechanisms through parameter space confirms this to be the case.
We find that three of the mechanisms are employed in real patterning systems, including both blastoderm patterning in Drosophila and mesoderm specification in Xenopus (Figure 5B). The remaining three mechanisms are thus candidates for employment in other patterning systems. We explored the performance features of these mechanisms, which suggest that some have features such as robustness to parameter variation that make them highly likely to be employed in particular patterning contexts.
Only one of the six-core mechanisms absolutely requires cell–cell communication for functionality, prompting us to predict that cell–cell communication will rarely be responsible for the basic dose response of morphogen interpretation networks. However, we show how cell–cell communication has an important role in robust stripe generation in the face of a noisy morphogen input and in fine tuning the quantitative details of stripe patterning.
In summary, the complexity atlas approach is an amendable approach to any system with a clear genotype–function relationship. We demonstrate how certain functions such as morphogen interpretation may have a range of potential solutions in contrast to previous studies that analyzed more constrained functions. Furthermore, we demonstrate how such an approach can be utilized to define a ‘design space' for a given biological function that describes the different mechanistic possibilities and how they relate to one another (Figure 5). Such a design space can be used practically as a guide to discern which patterning mechanisms are likely be at work in a particular context throwing up less intuitive possibilities with powerful performance features.
The interpretation of morphogen gradients is a pivotal concept in developmental biology, and several mechanisms have been proposed to explain how gene regulatory networks (GRNs) achieve concentration-dependent responses. However, the number of different mechanisms that may exist for cells to interpret morphogens, and the importance of design features such as feedback or local cell–cell communication, is unclear. A complete understanding of such systems will require going beyond a case-by-case analysis of real morphogen interpretation mechanisms and mapping out a complete GRN ‘design space.' Here, we generate a first atlas of design space for GRNs capable of patterning a homogeneous field of cells into discrete gene expression domains by interpreting a fixed morphogen gradient. We uncover multiple very distinct mechanisms distributed discretely across the atlas, thereby expanding the repertoire of morphogen interpretation network motifs. Analyzing this diverse collection of mechanisms also allows us to predict that local cell–cell communication will rarely be responsible for the basic dose-dependent response of morphogen interpretation networks.