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Elementary Growth Modes provide a molecular description of cellular self-fabrication

By Daan H. de Groot, Josephus Hulshof, Bas Teusink, Frank J. Bruggeman, Robert Planque

Posted 13 Apr 2019
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/608083 (published DOI: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1007559)

A major aim of biology is to predict phenotype from genotype. Here we ask if we can describe all possible molecular states (phenotypes) for a cell that fabricates itself at a constant rate, given its enzyme kinetics and the stoichiometry of all reactions (the genotype). For this, we must understand the autocatalytic process of cellular growth which is inherently nonlinear: steady-state self-fabrication requires a cell to synthesize all of its components, including metabolites, enzymes and ribosomes, in the proportions that exactly match its own composition -- the growth demand thus depends on the cellular composition. Simultaneously, the concentrations of these components should be tuned to accomplish this synthesis task -- the cellular composition thus depends on the growth demand. We here derive a theory that describes all phenotypes that solve this circular problem; the basic equations show how the concentrations of all cellular components and reaction rates must be balanced to get a constant self-fabrication rate. All phenotypes can be described as a combination of one or more minimal building blocks, which we call Elementary Growth Modes (EGMs). EGMs can be used as the theoretical basis for all models that explicitly model self-fabrication, such as the currently popular Metabolism and Expression models. We then used our theory to make concrete biological predictions: we find that natural selection for maximal growth rate drives microorganisms to states of minimal phenotypic complexity: only one EGM will be active when cellular growth rate is maximised. The phenotype of a cell is only extended with one more EGM whenever growth becomes limited by an additional biophysical constraint, such as a limited solvent capacity of a cellular compartment. Our theory starts from basic biochemical and evolutionary considerations, and describes unicellular life, both in growth-promoting and in stress-inducing environments, in terms of EGMs, the universal building blocks of self-fabrication and a cell's phenotype.

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