Cellular metabolism is most often described and interpreted in terms of the biochemical reactions that make up the metabolic network. Genomics is providing near complete information regarding the genes/gene products participating in cellular metabolism for a growing number of organisms. As the true functional units of metabolic systems are its pathways, the time has arrived to define metabolic pathways in the context of whole-cell metabolism for the analysis of the structural design and capabilities of the metabolic network. In this study, we present the theoretical foundations for the identification of the unique set of systemically independent biochemical pathways, termed extreme pathways, based on system stochiometry and limited thermodynamics. These pathways represent the edges of the steady-state flux cone derived from convex analysis, and they can be used to represent any flux distribution achievable by the metabolic network. An algorithm is presented to determine the set of extreme pathways for a system of any complexity and a classification scheme is introduced for the characterization of these pathways. The property of systemic independence is discussed along with its implications for issues related to metabolic regulation and the evolution of cellular metabolic networks. The underlying pathway structure that is determined from the set of extreme pathways now provides us with the ability to analyse, interpret, and perhaps predict metabolic function from a pathway-based perspective in addition to the traditional reaction-based perspective. The algorithm and classification scheme developed can be used to describe the pathway structure in annotated genomes to explore the capabilities of an organism.
Copyright 2000 Academic Press.