A general model for binary cell fate decision gene circuits with degeneracy: indeterminacy and switch behavior in the absence of cooperativity.
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BACKGROUND: The gene regulatory circuit motif in which two opposing fate-determining transcription factors inhibit each other but activate themselves has been used in mathematical models of binary cell fate decisions in multipotent stem or progenitor cells. This simple circuit can generate multistability and explains the symmetric "poised" precursor state in which both factors are present in the cell at equal amounts as well as the resolution of this indeterminate state as the cell commits to either cell fate characterized by an asymmetric expression pattern of the two factors. This establishes the two alternative stable attractors that represent the two fate options. It has been debated whether cooperativity of molecular interactions is necessary to produce such multistability. PRINCIPAL FINDINGS: Here we take a general modeling approach and argue that this question is not relevant. We show that non-linearity can arise in two distinct models in which no explicit interaction between the two factors is assumed and that distinct chemical reaction kinetic formalisms can lead to the same (generic) dynamical system form. Moreover, we describe a novel type of bifurcation that produces a degenerate steady state that can explain the metastable state of indeterminacy prior to cell fate decision-making and is consistent with biological observations. CONCLUSION: The general model presented here thus offers a novel principle for linking regulatory circuits with the state of indeterminacy characteristic of multipotent (stem) cells.