Living cells may be considered noisy or stochastic biochemical reactors. In eukaryotic cells, in which the number of protein or mRNA molecules is relatively large, the stochastic effects originate primarily in regulation of gene activity. Transcriptional activity of a gene can be initiated by transactivator molecules binding to the specific regulatory site(s) in the target gene. The stochasticity of activator binding and dissociation is amplified by transcription and translation, since target gene activation results in a burst of mRNAs molecules, and each copy of mRNA then serves as a template for numerous protein molecules. In this article, we reformulate our model of the NF-κB regulatory module to analyze a single cell regulation. Ordinary differential equations, used for description of fast reaction channels of processes involving a large number of molecules, are combined with a stochastic switch to account for the activity of the genes involved. The stochasticity in gene transcription causes simulated cells to exhibit large variability. Moreover, none of them behaves like an average cell. Although the average mRNA and protein levels remain constant before tumor necrosis factor (TNF) stimulation, and stabilize after a prolonged TNF stimulation, in any single cell these levels oscillate stochastically in the absence of TNF and keep oscillating under the prolonged TNF stimulation. However, in a short period of ∼90 min, most cells are synchronized by the TNF signal, and exhibit similar kinetics. We hypothesize that this synchronization is crucial for proper activation of early genes controlling inflammation. Our theoretical predictions of single cell kinetics are supported by recent experimental studies of oscillations in NF-κB signaling made on single cells.
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