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1.  Design principles of stripe-forming motifs: the role of positive feedback 
Scientific Reports  2014;4:5003.
Interpreting a morphogen gradient into a single stripe of gene-expression is a fundamental unit of patterning in early embryogenesis. From both experimental data and computational studies the feed-forward motifs stand out as minimal networks capable of this patterning function. Positive feedback within gene networks has been hypothesised to enhance the sharpness and precision of gene-expression borders, however a systematic analysis has not yet been reported. Here we set out to assess this hypothesis, and find an unexpected result. The addition of positive-feedback can have different effects on two different designs of feed-forward motif– it increases the parametric robustness of one design, while being neutral or detrimental to the other. These results shed light on the abundance of the former motif and especially of mutual-inhibition positive feedback in developmental networks.
PMCID: PMC4023129  PMID: 24830352
2.  Avoiding transcription factor competition at promoter level increases the chances of obtaining oscillation 
BMC Systems Biology  2010;4:66.
The ultimate goal of synthetic biology is the conception and construction of genetic circuits that are reliable with respect to their designed function (e.g. oscillators, switches). This task remains still to be attained due to the inherent synergy of the biological building blocks and to an insufficient feedback between experiments and mathematical models. Nevertheless, the progress in these directions has been substantial.
It has been emphasized in the literature that the architecture of a genetic oscillator must include positive (activating) and negative (inhibiting) genetic interactions in order to yield robust oscillations. Our results point out that the oscillatory capacity is not only affected by the interaction polarity but by how it is implemented at promoter level. For a chosen oscillator architecture, we show by means of numerical simulations that the existence or lack of competition between activator and inhibitor at promoter level affects the probability of producing oscillations and also leaves characteristic fingerprints on the associated period/amplitude features.
In comparison with non-competitive binding at promoters, competition drastically reduces the region of the parameters space characterized by oscillatory solutions. Moreover, while competition leads to pulse-like oscillations with long-tail distribution in period and amplitude for various parameters or noisy conditions, the non-competitive scenario shows a characteristic frequency and confined amplitude values. Our study also situates the competition mechanism in the context of existing genetic oscillators, with emphasis on the Atkinson oscillator.
PMCID: PMC2898670  PMID: 20478019
3.  Human synthetic lethal inference as potential anti-cancer target gene detection 
BMC Systems Biology  2009;3:116.
Two genes are called synthetic lethal (SL) if mutation of either alone is not lethal, but mutation of both leads to death or a significant decrease in organism's fitness. The detection of SL gene pairs constitutes a promising alternative for anti-cancer therapy. As cancer cells exhibit a large number of mutations, the identification of these mutated genes' SL partners may provide specific anti-cancer drug candidates, with minor perturbations to the healthy cells. Since existent SL data is mainly restricted to yeast screenings, the road towards human SL candidates is limited to inference methods.
In the present work, we use phylogenetic analysis and database manipulation (BioGRID for interactions, Ensembl and NCBI for homology, Gene Ontology for GO attributes) in order to reconstruct the phylogenetically-inferred SL gene network for human. In addition, available data on cancer mutated genes (COSMIC and Cancer Gene Census databases) as well as on existent approved drugs (DrugBank database) supports our selection of cancer-therapy candidates.
Our work provides a complementary alternative to the current methods for drug discovering and gene target identification in anti-cancer research. Novel SL screening analysis and the use of highly curated databases would contribute to improve the results of this methodology.
PMCID: PMC2804737  PMID: 20015360
4.  Neutrality and Robustness in Evo-Devo: Emergence of Lateral Inhibition 
PLoS Computational Biology  2008;4(11):e1000226.
Embryonic development is defined by the hierarchical dynamical process that translates genetic information (genotype) into a spatial gene expression pattern (phenotype) providing the positional information for the correct unfolding of the organism. The nature and evolutionary implications of genotype–phenotype mapping still remain key topics in evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo). We have explored here issues of neutrality, robustness, and diversity in evo-devo by means of a simple model of gene regulatory networks. The small size of the system allowed an exhaustive analysis of the entire fitness landscape and the extent of its neutrality. This analysis shows that evolution leads to a class of robust genetic networks with an expression pattern characteristic of lateral inhibition. This class is a repertoire of distinct implementations of this key developmental process, the diversity of which provides valuable clues about its underlying causal principles.
Author Summary
The diversity of life is a consequence of changes in the genotype (genes and their interdependence), but it is upon the observable organism's morphology (phenotype) that natural selection acts. Thus, the study of genotype–phenotype mapping can reveal key mechanisms driving life's capacity of continuous evolution and resilience in diverse environments. In this context, it has been observed that small numbers of genes form robust functional developmental modules, hierarchically reused throughout development. Here we analyze the evolution of small genetic modules toward higher diversity and robustness. Given the small size of the gene network, we can afford to analyze all possible topologies and thus the entire fitness landscape. This exhaustive study as well as simulations of evolutionary processes uncover a set of genetic interactions producing robust and diverse phenotypes. We single out the distinctive features of these networks responsible for their stability against environmental and structural perturbations. More precisely, all these robust genotypes can be related to the key mechanism of lateral inhibition for which a cell of a given type inhibits its neighbors to keep them from adopting the same type. Their distinctive features can thus shed light on the underlying mechanisms leading to pattern formation through lateral inhibition.
PMCID: PMC2577890  PMID: 19023404
5.  Generic Darwinian selection in catalytic protocell assemblies 
To satisfy the minimal requirements for life, an information carrying molecular structure must be able to convert resources into building blocks and also be able to adapt to or modify its environment to enhance its own proliferation. Furthermore, new copies of itself must have variable fitness such that evolution is possible. In practical terms, a minimal protocell should be characterized by a strong coupling between its metabolism and genetic subsystem, which is made possible by the container. There is still no general agreement on how such a complex system might have been naturally selected for in a prebiotic environment. However, the historical details are not important for our investigations as they are related to assembling and evolution of protocells in the laboratory. Here, we study three different minimal protocell models of increasing complexity, all of them incorporating the coupling between a ‘genetic template’, a container and, eventually, a toy metabolism. We show that for any local growth law associated with template self-replication, the overall temporal evolution of all protocell's components follows an exponential growth (efficient or uninhibited autocatalysis). Thus, such a system attains exponential growth through coordinated catalytic growth of its component subsystems, independent of the replication efficiency of the involved subsystems. As exponential growth implies the survival of the fittest in a competitive environment, these results suggest that protocell assemblies could be efficient vehicles in terms of evolving through Darwinian selection.
PMCID: PMC2442399  PMID: 17510015
protocell; replicator dynamics; catalytic coupling; prebiotic evolution
6.  Synthetic protocell biology: from reproduction to computation 
Cells are the building blocks of biological complexity. They are complex systems sustained by the coordinated cooperative dynamics of several biochemical networks. Their replication, adaptation and computational features emerge as a consequence of appropriate molecular feedbacks that somehow define what life is. As the last decades have brought the transition from the description-driven biology to the synthesis-driven biology, one great challenge shared by both the fields of bioengineering and the origin of life is to find the appropriate conditions under which living cellular structures can effectively emerge and persist. Here, we review current knowledge (both theoretical and experimental) on possible scenarios of artificial cell design and their future challenges.
PMCID: PMC2442389  PMID: 17472932
cells; cell cycle; cell membrane; metabolism; information; synthetic biology
7.  A unified design space of synthetic stripe-forming networks 
Nature Communications  2014;5:4905.
Synthetic biology is a promising tool to study the function and properties of gene regulatory networks. Gene circuits with predefined behaviours have been successfully built and modelled, but largely on a case-by-case basis. Here we go beyond individual networks and explore both computationally and synthetically the design space of possible dynamical mechanisms for 3-node stripe-forming networks. First, we computationally test every possible 3-node network for stripe formation in a morphogen gradient. We discover four different dynamical mechanisms to form a stripe and identify the minimal network of each group. Next, with the help of newly established engineering criteria we build these four networks synthetically and show that they indeed operate with four fundamentally distinct mechanisms. Finally, this close match between theory and experiment allows us to infer and subsequently build a 2-node network that represents the archetype of the explored design space.
Constructing gene circuits with predefined behaviours is typically done on a case-by-case basis. Schaerli et al. instead computationally explore the design space for 3-node networks that generate a stripe in response to a morphogen gradient, and build networks based on their simplest possible forms.
PMCID: PMC4172969  PMID: 25247316

Results 1-7 (7)