Studying biological regulatory networks at topological level is a major issue in
computational biology studies since this helps understanding the regulation inside
the cell. At this purpose, transcription network simulators can be used to generate
hypothesis on regulatory mechanisms, to predict cell behaviour and to evaluate
reverse engineering algorithms performance on synthetic data, generated from gene
networks of known topology. Quality of inference depends on the ability of the
simulator to resemble the main features of real regulatory networks, in particular to
mimic topology and regulatory mechanisms.
Different models are available in the literature to represent topology of biological
networks; however, no one of them is able to describe all the properties observed on
real networks: the power-law distribution of connectivity degree, the independence of
clustering coefficient on the number of genes in the network, and the small world
Two main classes of models are available in the literature to describe regulatory
mechanisms: differential equation based models and Boolean models of regulation. The
former provide continuous data, but in general address simplistic regulatory logic,
e.g. additive or multiplicative effects; the latter resemble important aspects of
gene regulation such as complex regulatory mechanisms, but do not describe continuous
changes in gene expression.
Here we present a novel transcription network simulator which accounts for main
topological and regulatory properties observed in biological networks.
The topology is generated as a scale-free network, by interconnecting sub-network
structures which are replicated at different level of network organization (as in
fractals). Regulatory sub-networks are generated by randomly assigning a number of
regulators to each gene according to a scale-free structure: the probability for each
node of having a number of connections with other nodes follows a power-law
distribution. The nodes with the highest number of connections are called hubs.
Sub-networks are connected to each other through nodes randomly selected among the
hubs. This strategy is iteratively repeated to generate a network characterized by
annidated modules, so as to render the simulated network scale-free, but with
clustering coefficient not dependent on the number of nodes in the network.
Regulation is modelled using Boolean logic extended to the continuous domain, so as
to represent both complex regulatory mechanisms and continuous nature of gene
expression data. In particular, transcription regulation is modelled, for each gene
x, as a combination of three basic regulatory rules:
1) the function `minimum` models regulatory effect achieved only if the regulators
r_1, ..., r_m are simultaneously active: min(r_1, ..., r_m);
2) the function `maximum` models regulatory action which can be alternatively
performed by different regulators r_1, ..., r_m: max (r_1, ..., r_m);
3) the `minus sign` models negative regulation (inhibition or degradation).
For each gene x, the result of the combination of these regulatory rules is a target
value T; e.g. T=min[(-r_1,max(r_2,r_3)].
To resemble the continuous nature of transcription, the rate of change of gene x
expression level at time t is then modelled using differential equation:
dx(t)/dt = k*(T-x(t))
where T results from the regulatory rules, and k is a time constant influencing both
the rate of transcription and degradation.
Performances of the simulator were considered in terms of generated network
topologies and expression profiles. In particular, the simulated topologies were
compared to random, scale free and geometric graph; only the new model was able to
resemble all the global properties observed in biological networks and to maintain
local motif structures, which is also characteristic of real networks.
To test the plausibility of generated profiles, we compared them to a publicly
available real data set describing the temporal expression of 102 genes of E. Coli
after induction of the expression of a recombinant protein (Schmidt-Heck et al.
2004). Cluster analysis performed on simulated and on real data gave similar results
in terms of range and complexity of the profiles. The correlations calculated between
any pair of genes had similar distribution on simulated and real data. The same result
were obtained using the pair-wise partial correlation and covariance.
The simulator, by integrating two main features of transcription networks such as
topological and regulatory properties, should provide a reliable test bed for reverse