Detailed qualitative dynamic knowledge representation using a BioNetGen model of TLR-4 signaling and preconditioning

Math Biosci. 2009 Jan;217(1):53-63. doi: 10.1016/j.mbs.2008.08.013. Epub 2008 Sep 12.


Introduction: Intracellular signaling/synthetic pathways are being increasingly extensively characterized. However, while these pathways can be displayed in static diagrams, in reality they exist with a degree of dynamic complexity that is responsible for heterogeneous cellular behavior. Multiple parallel pathways exist and interact concurrently, limiting the ability to integrate the various identified mechanisms into a cohesive whole. Computational methods have been suggested as a means of concatenating this knowledge to aid in the understanding of overall system dynamics. Since the eventual goal of biomedical research is the identification and development of therapeutic modalities, computational representation must have sufficient detail to facilitate this 'engineering' process. Adding to the challenge, this type of representation must occur in a perpetual state of incomplete knowledge. We present a modeling approach to address this challenge that is both detailed and qualitative. This approach is termed 'dynamic knowledge representation,' and is intended to be an integrated component of the iterative cycle of scientific discovery.

Methods: BioNetGen (BNG), a software platform for modeling intracellular signaling pathways, was used to model the toll-like receptor 4 (TLR-4) signal transduction cascade. The informational basis of the model was a series of reference papers on modulation of (TLR-4) signaling, and some specific primary research papers to aid in the characterization of specific mechanistic steps in the pathway. This model was detailed with respect to the components of the pathway represented, but qualitative with respect to the specific reaction coefficients utilized to execute the reactions. Responsiveness to simulated lipopolysaccharide (LPS) administration was measured by tumor necrosis factor (TNF) production. Simulation runs included evaluation of initial dose-dependent response to LPS administration at 10, 100, 1000 and 10,000, and a subsequent examination of preconditioning behavior with increasing LPS at 10, 100, 1000 and 10,000 and a secondary dose of LPS at 10,000 administered at approximately 27h of simulated time. Simulations of 'knockout' versions of the model allowed further examination of the interactions within the signaling cascade.

Results: The model demonstrated a dose-dependent TNF response curve to increasing stimulus by LPS. Preconditioning simulations demonstrated a similar dose-dependency of preconditioning doses leading to attenuation of response to subsequent LPS challenge - a 'tolerance' dynamic. These responses match dynamics reported in the literature. Furthermore, the simulated 'knockout' results suggested the existence and need for dual negative feedback control mechanisms, represented by the zinc ring-finger protein A20 and inhibitor kappa B proteins (IkappaB), in order for both effective attenuation of the initial stimulus signal and subsequent preconditioned 'tolerant' behavior.

Conclusions: We present an example of detailed, qualitative dynamic knowledge representation using the TLR-4 signaling pathway, its control mechanisms and overall behavior with respect to preconditioning. The intent of this approach is to demonstrate a method of translating the extensive mechanistic knowledge being generated at the basic science level into an executable framework that can provide a means of 'conceptual model verification.' This allows for both the 'checking' of the dynamic consequences of a mechanistic hypothesis and the creation of a modular component of an overall model directed at the engineering goal of biomedical research. It is hoped that this paper will increase the use of knowledge representation and communication in this fashion, and facilitate the concatenation and integration of community-wide knowledge.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Computer Simulation
  • Humans
  • Inflammation / immunology
  • Inflammation / metabolism*
  • Lipopolysaccharides / pharmacology
  • Models, Biological*
  • Signal Transduction
  • Toll-Like Receptor 4 / immunology
  • Toll-Like Receptor 4 / metabolism*
  • Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha / immunology
  • Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha / metabolism


  • Lipopolysaccharides
  • TLR4 protein, human
  • Toll-Like Receptor 4
  • Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha