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Title: Internal models in control, bioengineering, and neuroscience
Cells respond to biochemical and physical internal as well as external signals. These signals can be broadly classified into two categories: (a) ``actionable'' or ``reference'' inputs that should elicit appropriate biological or physical responses such as gene expression or motility, and (b) ``disturbances'' or ``perturbations'' that should be ignored or actively filtered-out. These disturbances might be exogenous, such as binding of nonspecific ligands, or endogenous, such as variations in enzyme concentrations or gene copy numbers. In this context, the term robustness describes the capability to produce appropriate responses to reference inputs while at the same time being insensitive to disturbances. These two objectives often conflict with each other and require delicate design trade-offs. Indeed, natural biological systems use complicated and still poorly understood control strategies in order to finely balance the goals of responsiveness and robustness. A better understanding of such natural strategies remains an important scientific goal in itself and will play a role in the construction of synthetic circuits for therapeutic and biosensing applications. A prototype problem in robustly responding to inputs is that of ``robust tracking'', defined by the requirement that some designated internal quantity (for example, the level of expression of a reporter protein) should faithfully more » follow an input signal while being insensitive to an appropriate class of perturbations. Control theory predicts that a certain type of motif, called integral feedback, will help achieve this goal, and this motif is, in fact, a necessary feature of any system that exhibits robust tracking. Indeed, integral feedback has always been a key component of electrical and mechanical control systems, at least since the 18th century when James Watt employed the centrifugal governor to regulate steam engines. Motivated by this knowledge, biological engineers have proposed various designs for biomolecular integral feedback control mechanisms. However, practical and quantitatively predictable implementations have proved challenging, in part due to the difficulty in obtaining accurate models of transcription, translation, and resource competition in living cells, and the stochasticity inherent in cellular reactions. These challenges prevent first-principles rational design and parameter optimization. In this work, we exploit the versatility of an Escherichia coli cell-free transcription-translation (TXTL) to accurately design, model and then build, a synthetic biomolecular integral controller that precisely controls the expression of a target gene. To our knowledge, this is the first design of a functioning gene network that achieves the goal of making gene expression track an externally imposed reference level, achieves this goal even in the presence of disturbances, and whose performance quantitatively agrees with mathematical predictions. « less
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Annual review of control robotics and autonomous systems
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National Science Foundation
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  1. Abstract

    Feedback mechanisms play a critical role in the maintenance of cell homeostasis in the presence of disturbances and uncertainties. Motivated by the need to tune the dynamics and improve the robustness of gene circuits, biological engineers have proposed various designs that mimic natural molecular feedback control mechanisms. However, practical and predictable implementations have proved challenging because of the complexity of synthesis and analysis of complex biomolecular networks. Here, we analyze and experimentally validate a synthetic biomolecular controller executed in vitro. The controller ensures that gene expression rate tracks an externally imposed reference level, and achieves this goal even in the presence of certain kinds of disturbances. Our design relies upon an analog of the well-known principle of integral feedback in control theory. We implement the controller in anEscherichia colicell-free transcription-translation system, which allows rapid prototyping and implementation. Modeling and theory guide experimental implementation with well-defined operational predictability.

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