Background: The unfolded protein response (UPR) is a major signalling cascade acting in the quality control of protein folding in the endoplasmic reticulum (ER). The cascade is known to play an accessory role in a range of genetic and environmental disorders including neurodegenerative and cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and kidney diseases. The three major receptors of the ER stress involved with the UPR, i.e. IRE1 α, PERK and ATF6, signal through a complex web of pathways to convey an appropriate response. The emerging behaviour ranges from adaptive to maladaptive depending on the severity of unfolded protein accumulation in the ER; however, the decision mechanism for the switch and its timing have so far been poorly understood.
Results: Here, we propose a mechanism by which the UPR outcome switches between survival and death. We compose a mathematical model integrating the three signalling branches, and perform a comprehensive bifurcation analysis to investigate possible responses to stimuli. The analysis reveals three distinct states of behaviour, low, high and intermediate activity, associated with stress adaptation, tolerance, and the initiation of apoptosis. The decision to adapt or destruct can, therefore, be understood as a dynamic process where the balance between the stress and the folding capacity of the ER plays a pivotal role in managing the delivery of the most appropriate response. The model demonstrates for the first time that the UPR is capable of generating oscillations in translation attenuation and the apoptotic signals, and this is supplemented with a Bayesian sensitivity analysis identifying a set of parameters controlling this behaviour.
Conclusions: This work contributes largely to the understanding of one of the most ubiquitous signalling pathways involved in protein folding quality control in the metazoan ER. The insights gained have direct consequences on the management of many UPR-related diseases, revealing, in addition, an extended list of candidate disease modifiers. Demonstration of stress adaptation sheds light to how preconditioning might be beneficial in manifesting the UPR outcome to prevent untimely apoptosis, and paves the way to novel approaches for the treatment of many UPR-related conditions.