Theoretical and Computational Studies on the Dynamics and Regulation of Cell Phenotypic Transitions
Cell phenotypic transitions, or cell fate decision making processes, are regulated by complex regulatory networks composed of genes, RNAs, proteins and metabolites. The regulation can take place at the epigenetic, transcriptional, translational, and post-translational levels to name a few.
Epigenetic histone modification plays an important role in cell phenotype maintenance and transitions. However, the underlying mechanism relating dynamical histone modifications to stable epigenetic cell memory remains elusive. Incorporating key pieces of molecular level experimental information, we built a statistical mechanics model for the inheritance of epigenetic histone modifications. The model reveals that enzyme selectivity of different histone substrates and cooperativity between neighboring nucleosomes are essential to generate bistability of the epigenetic memory. We then applied the epigenetic modeling framework to the differentiation process of olfactory sensory neurons (OSNs), where the observed 'one-neuron-one-allele' phenomenon has remained as a long-standing puzzle. Our model successfully explains this singular behavior in terms of epigenetic competition and enhancer cooperativity during the differentiation process. Epigenetic level events and transcriptional level events cooperate synergistically in the OSN differentiation process. The model also makes a list of testable experimental predictions. In general, the epigenetic modeling framework can be used to study phenotypic transitions when histone modification is a major regulatory element in the system.
Post-transcriptional level regulation plays important roles in cell phenotype maintenance. Our integrated experimental and computational studies revealed such a motif regulating the differentiation of definitive endoderm. We identified two RNA binding proteins, hnRNPA1 and KSRP, which repress each other through microRNAs miR-375 and miR-135a. The motif can generate switch behavior and serve as a noise filter in the stem cell differentiation process. Manipulating the motif could enhance the differentiation efficiency toward a specific lineage one desires.
Last we performed mathematical modeling on an epithelial-to-mesenchymal transition (EMT) process, which could be used by tumor cells for their migration. Our model predicts that the IL-6 induced EMT is a stepwise process with multiple intermediate states.
In summary, our theoretical and computational analyses about cell phenotypic transitions provide novel insights on the underlying mechanism of cell fate decision. The modeling studies revealed general physical principles underlying complex regulatory networks.