Chalmers Conferences, 9th European Conference on Mathematical and Theoretical Biology

Biological signal processing with a genetic toggle switch
Georg Fritz

Last modified: 2014-06-09


Complex gene regulation requires responses that depend not only on the current levels of input signals but also on signals received in the past. In digital electronics, logic circuits with this property are referred to as sequential logic, in contrast to the simpler combinatorial logic without such internal memory. In molecular biology, memory is implemented in various forms such as biochemical modification of proteins or multistable gene circuits, but the design of the regulatory interface, which processes the input signals and the memory content, is often not well understood. Here, we explore design constraints for such regulatory interfaces using coarse-grained nonlinear models and stochastic simulations of detailed biochemical reaction networks. We test different designs for biological analogs of the most versatile memory element in digital electronics, the JK-latch. Our analysis shows that simple protein-protein interactions and protein-DNA binding are sufficient, in principle, to implement genetic circuits with the capabilities of a JK- latch. However, it also exposes fundamental limitations to its reliability, due to the fact that biological signal processing is asynchronous, in contrast to most digital electronics systems that feature a central clock to orchestrate the timing of all operations. We describe a seemingly natural way to improve the reliability by invoking the master-slave concept from digital electronics design. This concept could be useful to interpret the design of natural regulatory circuits, and for the design of synthetic biological systems.