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Artificial Life

Winter 2012, Vol. 18, No. 1, Pages 53-90
(doi: 10.1162/artl_a_00049)
© 2011 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Biological Design Principles of Complex Feedback Modules in the E. coli Ammonia Assimilation System
Article PDF (1.39 MB)

To synthesize natural or artificial life, it is critically important to understand the design principles of how biochemical networks generate particular cellular functions and evolve complex systems in comparison with engineering systems. Cellular systems maintain their robustness in the face of perturbations arising from environmental and genetic variations. In analogy to control engineering architectures, the complexity of modular structures within a cell can be attributed to the necessity of achieving robustness. To reveal such biological design, the E. coli ammonia assimilation system is analyzed, which consists of complex but highly structured modules: the glutamine synthetase (GS) activity feedback control module with bifunctional enzyme cascades for catalyzing reversible reactions, and the GS synthesis feedback control module with positive and negative feedback loops. We develop a full-scale dynamic model that unifies the two modules, and we analyze its robustness and fine tuning with respect to internal and external perturbations. The GS activity control is added to the GS synthesis module to improve its transient response to ammonia depletion, compensating the tradeoffs of each module, but its robustness to internal perturbations is lost. These findings suggest some design principles necessary for the synthesis of life.