Intrinsic information carriers in combinatorial dynamical systems

Russ Harmer, Vincent Danos, Jérôme Feret, Jean Krivine, Walter Fontana

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Many proteins are composed of structural and chemical features—“sites” for short—characterized by definite interaction capabilities, such as noncovalent binding or covalent modification of other proteins. This modularity allows for varying degrees of independence, as the behavior of a site might be controlled by the state of some but not all sites of the ambient protein. Independence quickly generates a startling combinatorial complexity that shapes most biological networks, such as mammalian signaling systems, and effectively prevents their study in terms of kinetic equations—unless the complexity is radically trimmed. Yet, if combinatorial complexity is key to the system’s behavior, eliminating it will prevent, not facilitate, understanding. A more adequate representation of a combinatorial system is provided by a graph-based framework of rewrite rules where each rule specifies only the information that an interaction mechanism depends on. Unlike reactions, which deal with molecular species, rules deal with patterns, i.e., multisets of molecular species. Although the stochastic dynamics induced by a collection of rules on a mixture of molecules can be simulated, it appears useful to capture the system’s average or deterministic behavior by means of differential equations. However, expansion of the rules into kinetic equations at the level of molecular species is not only impractical, but conceptually indefensible. If rules describe bona fide patterns of interaction, molecular species are unlikely to constitute appropriate units of dynamics. Rather, we must seek aggregate variables reflective of the causal structure laid down by the rules. We call these variables “fragments” and the process of identifying them “fragmentation.” Ideally, fragments are aspects of the system’s microscopic population that the set of rules can actually distinguish on average; in practice, it may only be feasible to identify an approximation to this. Most importantly, fragments are self-consistent descriptors of system dynamics in that their time-evolution is governed by a closed system of kinetic equations. Taken together, fragments are endogenous distinctions that matter for the dynamics of a system, which warrants viewing them as the carriers of information. Although fragments can be thought of as multisets of molecular species (an extensional view), their self-consistency suggests treating them as autonomous aspects cut off from their microscopic realization (an intensional view). Fragmentation is a seeded process that depends on the choice of observables whose dynamics one insists to describe. Different observables can cause distinct fragmentations, in effect altering the set of information carriers that govern the behavior of a system, even though nothing has changed in its microscopic constitution. In this contribution, we present a mathematical specification of fragments, but not an algorithmic implementation. We have described the latter elsewhere in rather technical terms that, although effective, were lacking an embedding into a more general conceptual framework, which we here provide.
Original languageEnglish
Article number037108
Pages (from-to)037108:1-037108:16
Number of pages16
JournalChaos: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Nonlinear Science
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2010

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • differential equations
  • molecular biophysics
  • proteins
  • stochastic processes


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