Multi-stability in cellular differentiation enabled by a network of three mutually repressing master regulators

J R Soc Interface. 2020 Sep;17(170):20200631. doi: 10.1098/rsif.2020.0631. Epub 2020 Sep 30.


Identifying the design principles of complex regulatory networks driving cellular decision-making remains essential to decode embryonic development as well as enhance cellular reprogramming. A well-studied network motif involved in cellular decision-making is a toggle switch-a set of two opposing transcription factors A and B, each of which is a master regulator of a specific cell fate and can inhibit the activity of the other. A toggle switch can lead to two possible states-(high A, low B) and (low A, high B)-and drives the 'either-or' choice between these two cell fates for a common progenitor cell. However, the principles of coupled toggle switches remain unclear. Here, we investigate the dynamics of three master regulators A, B and C inhibiting each other, thus forming three-coupled toggle switches to form a toggle triad. Our simulations show that this toggle triad can lead to co-existence of cells into three differentiated 'single positive' phenotypes-(high A, low B, low C), (low A, high B, low C) and (low A, low B, high C). Moreover, the hybrid or 'double positive' phenotypes-(high A, high B, low C), (low A, high B, high C) and (high A, low B, high C)-can coexist together with 'single positive' phenotypes. Including self-activation loops on A, B and C can increase the frequency of 'double positive' states. Finally, we apply our results to understand cellular decision-making in terms of differentiation of naive CD4+ T cells into Th1, Th2 and Th17 states, where hybrid Th1/Th2 and hybrid Th1/Th17 cells have been reported in addition to the Th1, Th2 and Th17 ones. Our results offer novel insights into the design principles of a multi-stable network topology and provide a framework for synthetic biology to design tristable systems.

Keywords: T-cell differentiation; multi-stability; phenotypic plasticity; toggle switch; toggle triad.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cell Differentiation
  • Embryonic Development
  • Synthetic Biology*
  • Transcription Factors*


  • Transcription Factors