Structure and function of the feed-forward loop network motif

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2003 Oct 14;100(21):11980-5. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2133841100. Epub 2003 Oct 6.


Engineered systems are often built of recurring circuit modules that carry out key functions. Transcription networks that regulate the responses of living cells were recently found to obey similar principles: they contain several biochemical wiring patterns, termed network motifs, which recur throughout the network. One of these motifs is the feed-forward loop (FFL). The FFL, a three-gene pattern, is composed of two input transcription factors, one of which regulates the other, both jointly regulating a target gene. The FFL has eight possible structural types, because each of the three interactions in the FFL can be activating or repressing. Here, we theoretically analyze the functions of these eight structural types. We find that four of the FFL types, termed incoherent FFLs, act as sign-sensitive accelerators: they speed up the response time of the target gene expression following stimulus steps in one direction (e.g., off to on) but not in the other direction (on to off). The other four types, coherent FFLs, act as sign-sensitive delays. We find that some FFL types appear in transcription network databases much more frequently than others. In some cases, the rare FFL types have reduced functionality (responding to only one of their two input stimuli), which may partially explain why they are selected against. Additional features, such as pulse generation and cooperativity, are discussed. This study defines the function of one of the most significant recurring circuit elements in transcription networks.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Escherichia coli / genetics
  • Escherichia coli / metabolism
  • Escherichia coli Proteins / metabolism
  • Feedback
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Bacterial
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Fungal
  • Kinetics
  • Models, Genetic*
  • Promoter Regions, Genetic
  • Saccharomyces cerevisiae / genetics
  • Saccharomyces cerevisiae / metabolism
  • Saccharomyces cerevisiae Proteins / metabolism
  • Transcription Factors / metabolism
  • Transcription, Genetic*


  • Escherichia coli Proteins
  • Saccharomyces cerevisiae Proteins
  • Transcription Factors