Beginning of this year Ben Lehner’s lab published a beautiful study in BMC Systems Biology with the title “A simple principle concerning the robustness of protein complex activity to changes in gene expression”. The abstract reads:
The functions of a eukaryotic cell are largely performed by multi-subunit protein complexes that act as molecular machines or information processing modules in cellular networks. An important problem in systems biology is to understand how, in general, these molecular machines respond to perturbations.
In yeast, genes that inhibit growth when their expression is reduced are strongly enriched amongst the subunits of multi-subunit protein complexes. This applies to both the core and peripheral subunits of protein complexes, and the subunits of each complex normally have the same loss-of-function phenotypes. In contrast, genes that inhibit growth when their expression is increased are not enriched amongst the core or peripheral subunits of protein complexes, and the behaviour of one subunit of a complex is not predictive for the other subunits with respect to over-expression phenotypes.
We propose the principle that the overall activity of a protein complex is in general robust to an increase, but not to a decrease in the expression of its subunits. This means that whereas phenotypes resulting from a decrease in gene expression can be predicted because they cluster on networks of protein complexes, over-expression phenotypes cannot be predicted in this way. We discuss the implications of these findings for understanding how cells are regulated, how they evolve, and how genetic perturbations connect to disease in humans.
It struck me that these observations can all be explained by the just-in-time assembly model for temporal regulation of protein complex assembly, which I developed together with members of Søren Brunak’s group. For a long explanation and discussion of the model see our paper “Evolution of Cell Cycle Control: Same Molecular Machines, Different Regulation”. For the short version see the figure below, which shows how cell-cycle regulation of just a single subunit is sufficient to control when during the cell cycle a complex is active (click to enlarge):
What will happen if you knock down the expression of one subunit of a complex? The maximal number of complete complexes that can be assembled will be reduced, irrespective of whether the subunit is dynamic or static. Whether this results in a given phenotype depends on the function of the complex. However, the effect should in principle be the same for different subunits of the same complex, which is exactly what Lehner and coworkers observed.
What if you instead overexpress one subunit of a complex? For a static subunit it should not really matter; the maximal number of complete complexes that can be assembled is unchanged. On the other hand, overexpression of a dynamic subunit may cause the complex to become constitutively active, which could have disastrous consequences for the cell. Overexpression of dynamic and static subunits of the same complex should thus give rise to different phenotypic effects. This would explain the observation by Lehner and coworkers that subunits of the same complex often have different overexpression phenotypes.
If this hypothesis is true, genes that lead to phenotypic effects when overexpressed should preferentially encode dynamic proteins, i.e. many of the genes should be periodically expressed. In fact, this correlation between overexpression phenotype and cell-cycle regulation was already described by the Hughes, Boone and Andrews labs who originally published the dataset on overexpression phenotypes (for details see their paper in Molecular Cell):
Genes expressed periodically during the cell cycle (de Lichtenberg et al., 2005) were more likely to show an overexpression phenotype (p = 0.017), and in particular, this tended to cause abnormal morphology [p < 10-13] or cell cycle arrest [p < 10-14](Table S3). When the analysis is limited to genes known to function in the mitotic cell cycle, we still find that overexpression of periodically expressed genes is more likely to cause cell cycle arrest (p = 0.008) or abnormal morphology (p = 0.006) than constitutively expressed cell cycle genes (Table S3), indicating that unscheduled expression of genes that are usually expressed periodically often leads to toxicity.
The results of the two papers thus point in the direction that the just-in-time assembly hypothesis can explain the qualitatively differences between knock-down and overexpression phenotypes.