Accepted Papers

Estimating Cellular Goals from High-Dimensional Biological Data

Laurence Yang, Michael A. Saunders, Jean-Christophe Lachance, Bernhard O. Palsson and José Bento


Optimization-based models have been used to predict cellular behavior for over 25 years. The constraints in these models are derived from genome annotations, measured macromolecular composition of cells, and by measuring the cell’s growth rate and metabolism in different conditions. The cellular goal (the optimization problem that the cell is trying to solve) can be challenging to derive experimentally for many organisms, including human or mammalian cells, which have complex metabolic capabilities and are not well understood. Existing approaches to learning goals from data include (a) estimating a linear objective function, or (b) estimating linear constraints that model complex biochemical reactions and constrain the cell’s operation. The latter approach is important because often the known reactions are not enough to explain observations; therefore, there is a need to extend automatically the model complexity by learning new reactions. However, this leads to nonconvex optimization problems, and existing tools cannot scale to realistically large metabolic models. Hence, constraint estimation is still used sparingly despite its benefits for modeling cell metabolism, which is important for developing novel antimicrobials against pathogens, discovering cancer drug targets, and producing value-added chemicals. Here, we develop the first approach to estimating constraint reactions from data that can scale to realistically large metabolic models. Previous tools were used on problems having less than 75 reactions and 60 metabolites, which limits real-life-size applications. We perform extensive experiments using 75 large-scale metabolic network models for different organisms (including bacteria, yeasts, and mammals) and show that our algorithm can recover cellular constraint reactions. The recovered constraints enable accurate prediction of metabolic states in hundreds of growth environments not seen in training data, and we recover useful cellular goals even when some measurements are missing.

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