Design of versatile biochemical switches that respond to amplitude, duration, and spatial cues

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2010 Jan 19;107(3):1247-52. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0908647107. Epub 2009 Dec 28.


Cells often mount ultrasensitive (switch-like) responses to stimuli. The design principles underlying many switches are not known. We computationally studied the switching behavior of GTPases, and found that this first-order kinetic system can show ultrasensitivity. Analytical solutions indicate that ultrasensitive first-order reactions can yield switches that respond to signal amplitude or duration. The three-component GTPase system is analogous to the physical fermion gas. This analogy allows for an analytical understanding of the functional capabilities of first-order ultrasensitive systems. Experiments show amplitude- and time-dependent Rap GTPase switching in response to Cannabinoid-1 receptor signal. This first-order switch arises from relative reaction rates and the concentrations ratios of the activator and deactivator of Rap. First-order ultrasensitivity is applicable to many systems where threshold for transition between states is dependent on the duration, amplitude, or location of a distal signal. We conclude that the emergence of ultrasensitivity from coupled first-order reactions provides a versatile mechanism for the design of biochemical switches.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • GTP Phosphohydrolases / metabolism*
  • Kinetics
  • Receptor, Cannabinoid, CB1 / metabolism
  • Signal Transduction


  • Receptor, Cannabinoid, CB1
  • GTP Phosphohydrolases