A Graphical and Computational Modelling Platform for Biological Pathways

Alessandra Livigni, Laura O'Hara, Marta E Polak, Tim Angus, Derek Wright, Lee B. Smith, Thomas Freeman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


A major endeavor of systems biology is the construction of graphical and computational models of biological pathways as a means to better understand their structure and function. Here, we present a protocol for a biologist-friendly graphical modeling scheme that facilitates the construction of detailed network diagrams, summarizing the components of a biological pathway (such as proteins and biochemicals) and illustrating how they interact. These diagrams can then be used to simulate activity flow through a pathway, thereby modeling its dynamic behavior. The protocol is divided into four sections: (i) assembly of network diagrams using the modified Edinburgh Pathway Notation (mEPN) scheme and yEd network editing software with pathway information obtained from published literature and databases of molecular interaction data; (ii) parameterization of the pathway model within yEd through the placement of 'tokens' on the basis of the known or imputed amount or activity of a component; (iii) model testing through visualization and quantitative analysis of the movement of tokens through the pathway, using the network analysis tool Graphia Professional and (iv) optimization of model parameterization and experimentation. This is the first modeling approach that combines a sophisticated notation scheme for depicting biological events at the molecular level with a Petri net-based flow simulation algorithm and a powerful visualization engine with which to observe the dynamics of the system being modeled. Unlike many mathematical approaches to modeling pathways, it does not require the construction of a series of equations or rate constants for model parameterization. Depending on a model's complexity and the availability of information, its construction can take days to months, and, with refinement, possibly years. However, once assembled and parameterized, a simulation run, even on a large model, typically takes only seconds. Models constructed using this approach provide a means of knowledge management, information exchange and, through the computation simulation of their dynamic activity, generation and testing of hypotheses, as well as prediction of a system's behavior when perturbed.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)705-722
Number of pages18
JournalNature Protocols
Issue number4
Early online date15 Mar 2018
Publication statusPublished - 15 Mar 2018


  • Journal Article


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