Analytical reduction of combinatorial complexity arising from multiple protein modification sites

J R Soc Interface. 2015 Feb 6;12(103):20141215. doi: 10.1098/rsif.2014.1215.


Combinatorial complexity is a major obstacle to ordinary differential equation (ODE) modelling of biochemical networks. For example, a protein with 10 sites that can each be unphosphorylated, phosphorylated or bound to adaptor protein requires 3(10) ODEs. This problem is often dealt with by making ad hoc assumptions which have unclear validity and disallow modelling of site-specific dynamics. Such site-specific dynamics, however, are important in many biological systems. We show here that for a common biological situation where adaptors bind modified sites, binding is slow relative to modification/demodification, and binding to one modified site hinders binding to other sites, for a protein with n modification sites and m adaptor proteins the number of ODEs needed to simulate the site-specific dynamics of biologically relevant, lumped bound adaptor states is independent of the number of modification sites and equal to m + 1, giving a significant reduction in system size. These considerations can be relaxed considerably while retaining reasonably accurate descriptions of the true system dynamics. We apply the theory to model, using only 11 ODEs, the dynamics of ligand-induced phosphorylation of nine tyrosines on epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFR) and primary recruitment of six signalling proteins (Grb2, PI3K, PLCγ1, SHP2, RasA1 and Shc1). The model quantitatively accounts for experimentally determined site-specific phosphorylation and dephosphorylation rates, differential affinities of binding proteins for the phosphorylated sites and binding protein expression levels. Analysis suggests that local concentration of site-specific phosphatases such as SHP2 in membrane subdomains by a factor of approximately 10(7) is critical for effective site-specific regulation. We further show how our framework can be extended with minimal effort to consider binding cooperativity between Grb2 and c-Cbl, which is important for receptor trafficking. Our theory has potentially broad application to reduce combinatorial complexity and allow practical simulation of a variety ODE models relevant to systems biology and pharmacology applications to allow exploration of key aspects of complexity that control signal flux.

Keywords: combinatorial complexity; kinetic modelling; model reduction; signal transduction.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • ErbB Receptors / metabolism
  • GRB2 Adaptor Protein / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Models, Biological*
  • Phosphatidylinositol 3-Kinases / metabolism
  • Phospholipase C gamma / metabolism
  • Phosphorylation / physiology
  • Protein Processing, Post-Translational / physiology*
  • Protein Tyrosine Phosphatase, Non-Receptor Type 11 / metabolism
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-cbl / metabolism
  • Shc Signaling Adaptor Proteins / metabolism
  • Signal Transduction / physiology*
  • Src Homology 2 Domain-Containing, Transforming Protein 1
  • p120 GTPase Activating Protein / metabolism


  • GRB2 Adaptor Protein
  • GRB2 protein, human
  • RASA1 protein, human
  • SHC1 protein, human
  • Shc Signaling Adaptor Proteins
  • Src Homology 2 Domain-Containing, Transforming Protein 1
  • p120 GTPase Activating Protein
  • Proto-Oncogene Proteins c-cbl
  • Phosphatidylinositol 3-Kinases
  • EGFR protein, human
  • ErbB Receptors
  • Protein Tyrosine Phosphatase, Non-Receptor Type 11
  • Phospholipase C gamma
  • CBL protein, human