A density-dependent switch drives stochastic clustering and polarization of signaling molecules

PLoS Comput Biol. 2011 Nov;7(11):e1002271. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1002271. Epub 2011 Nov 10.


Positive feedback plays a key role in the ability of signaling molecules to form highly localized clusters in the membrane or cytosol of cells. Such clustering can occur in the absence of localizing mechanisms such as pre-existing spatial cues, diffusional barriers, or molecular cross-linking. What prevents positive feedback from amplifying inevitable biological noise when an un-clustered "off" state is desired? And, what limits the spread of clusters when an "on" state is desired? Here, we show that a minimal positive feedback circuit provides the general principle for both suppressing and amplifying noise: below a critical density of signaling molecules, clustering switches off; above this threshold, highly localized clusters are recurrently generated. Clustering occurs only in the stochastic regime, suggesting that finite sizes of molecular populations cannot be ignored in signal transduction networks. The emergence of a dominant cluster for finite numbers of molecules is partly a phenomenon of random sampling, analogous to the fixation or loss of neutral mutations in finite populations. We refer to our model as the "neutral drift polarity model." Regulating the density of signaling molecules provides a simple mechanism for a positive feedback circuit to robustly switch between clustered and un-clustered states. The intrinsic ability of positive feedback both to create and suppress clustering is a general mechanism that could operate within diverse biological networks to create dynamic spatial organization.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Cell Communication
  • Cluster Analysis*
  • Computer Simulation
  • Feedback, Physiological
  • Signal Transduction*
  • Stochastic Processes*