Feedbacks, Bifurcations, and Cell Fate Decision-Making in the p53 System

PLoS Comput Biol. 2016 Feb 29;12(2):e1004787. doi: 10.1371/journal.pcbi.1004787. eCollection 2016 Feb.


The p53 transcription factor is a regulator of key cellular processes including DNA repair, cell cycle arrest, and apoptosis. In this theoretical study, we investigate how the complex circuitry of the p53 network allows for stochastic yet unambiguous cell fate decision-making. The proposed Markov chain model consists of the regulatory core and two subordinated bistable modules responsible for cell cycle arrest and apoptosis. The regulatory core is controlled by two negative feedback loops (regulated by Mdm2 and Wip1) responsible for oscillations, and two antagonistic positive feedback loops (regulated by phosphatases Wip1 and PTEN) responsible for bistability. By means of bifurcation analysis of the deterministic approximation we capture the recurrent solutions (i.e., steady states and limit cycles) that delineate temporal responses of the stochastic system. Direct switching from the limit-cycle oscillations to the "apoptotic" steady state is enabled by the existence of a subcritical Neimark-Sacker bifurcation in which the limit cycle loses its stability by merging with an unstable invariant torus. Our analysis provides an explanation why cancer cell lines known to have vastly diverse expression levels of Wip1 and PTEN exhibit a broad spectrum of responses to DNA damage: from a fast transition to a high level of p53 killer (a p53 phosphoform which promotes commitment to apoptosis) in cells characterized by high PTEN and low Wip1 levels to long-lasting p53 level oscillations in cells having PTEN promoter methylated (as in, e.g., MCF-7 cell line).

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Apoptosis / physiology
  • Cell Cycle Checkpoints / physiology
  • Feedback, Physiological / physiology*
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Neoplastic
  • Humans
  • Models, Biological*
  • Signal Transduction / physiology*
  • Tumor Suppressor Protein p53 / physiology*


  • Tumor Suppressor Protein p53

Grants and funding

BH, MK, MNB and TL were financed by National Science Center (Poland) grant 2014/13/B/NZ2/03840. MK is a recipient of START 2015 scholarship from the Foundation for Polish Science The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.