What is it about?

Cells use signaling pathways to receive, process, and respond to signals in their environment. The signaling pathways are made of molecular on-off switches. When a signal arrives, molecular switches may be switched on by activators, or their off state maintained by repressors may be relieved. The former case is like stepping on the accelerator in a car; the latter is like removing the foot from the brake. Our work compares different properties of signaling output of an activation-controlled switch versus that of a de-repression-controlled switch, providing insights into the advantages of each of these switch architectures. The results from our analysis should find relevance in designing drugs, synthetic biology, and understanding evolution.

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Why is it important?

Our finding show that signaling pathways in which signaling is initiated through activation respond differently from pathways that are activated by de-repression. These different properties may confer evolutionary benefits depending on environmental conditions.


This work resulted from a longstanding collaboration to understand cell signaling in plants. While the results are theoretical in nature, the analysis of molecular switches grew out of our efforts to interpret experimental data. We hope our results are thought provoking and find applications beyond cell signaling in plants.

Timothy Elston
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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This page is a summary of: Molecular switch architecture determines response properties of signaling pathways, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, March 2021, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,
DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2013401118.
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