On the relationship between sloppiness and identifiability

Math Biosci. 2016 Dec;282:147-161. doi: 10.1016/j.mbs.2016.10.009. Epub 2016 Oct 24.


Dynamic models of biochemical networks are often formulated as sets of non-linear ordinary differential equations, whose states are the concentrations or abundances of the network components. They typically have a large number of kinetic parameters, which must be determined by calibrating the model with experimental data. In recent years it has been suggested that dynamic systems biology models are universally sloppy, meaning that the values of some parameters can be perturbed by several orders of magnitude without causing significant changes in the model output. This observation has prompted calls for focusing on model predictions rather than on parameters. In this work we examine the concept of sloppiness, investigating its links with the long-established notions of structural and practical identifiability. By analysing a set of case studies we show that sloppiness is not equivalent to lack of identifiability, and that sloppy models can be identifiable. Thus, using sloppiness to draw conclusions about the possibility of estimating parameter values can be misleading. Instead, structural and practical identifiability analyses are better tools for assessing the confidence in parameter estimates. Furthermore, we show that, when designing new experiments to decrease parametric uncertainty, designs that optimize practical identifiability criteria are more informative than those that minimize sloppiness.

Keywords: Identifiability; Optimal experimental design; Parameter estimation; Sloppiness.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Models, Biological*
  • Systems Biology*