Maximum Caliber Can Characterize Genetic Switches with Multiple Hidden Species

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College of Natual Science and Mathematics, Physics and Astronomy


Gene networks with feedback often involve interactions between multiple species of biomolecules, much more than experiments can actually monitor. Coupled with this is the challenge that experiments often measure gene expression in noisy fluorescence instead of protein numbers. How do we infer biophysical information and characterize the underlying circuits from this limited and convoluted data? We address this by building stochastic models using the principle of Maximum Caliber (MaxCal). MaxCal uses the basic information on synthesis, degradation, and feedback—without invoking any other auxiliary species and ad hoc reactions—to generate stochastic trajectories similar to those typically measured in experiments. MaxCal in conjunction with Maximum Likelihood (ML) can infer parameters of the model using fluctuating trajectories of protein expression over time. We demonstrate the success of the MaxCal + ML methodology using synthetic data generated from known circuits of different genetic switches: (i) a single-gene autoactivating circuit involving five species (including mRNA), (ii) a mutually repressing two-gene circuit (toggle switch) with seven species (including mRNA) considering stochastic time traces of two proteins, and (iii) the same toggle switch circuit considering stochastic time traces of only one of the two proteins. To further challenge the MaxCal + ML inference scheme, we repeat our analysis for the second and third scenario with traces expressed in noisy fluorescence instead of protein number to closely mimic typical experiments. We show that, for all of these models with increasing complexity and obfuscation, the minimal model of MaxCal is still able to capture the fluctuations of the trajectory and infer basic underlying rate parameters when benchmarked against the known values used to generate the synthetic data. Importantly, the model also yields an effective feedback parameter that can be used to quantify interactions within these circuits. These applications show the promise of MaxCal’s ability to characterize circuits with limited data, and its utility to better understand evolution and advance design strategies for specific functions.

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