Inferring single-cell gene expression mechanisms using stochastic simulation


Motivation: Stochastic promoter switching between transcriptionally active (ON) and inactive (OFF) states is a major source of noise in gene expression. It is often implicitly assumed that transitions between promoter states are memoryless, i.e. promoters spend an exponentially distributed time interval in each of the two states. However, increasing evidence suggests that promoter ON/OFF times can be non-exponential, hinting at more complex transcriptional regulatory architectures. Given the essential role of gene expression in all cellular functions, efficient computational techniques for characterizing promoter architectures are critically needed. Results: We have developed a novel model reduction for promoters with arbitrary numbers of ON and OFF states, allowing us to approximate complex promoter switching behavior with Weibull-distributed ON/OFF times. Using this model reduction, we created bursty Monte Carlo expectation-maximization with modified cross-entropy method ('bursty MCEM2'), an efficient parameter estimation and model selection technique for inferring the number and configuration of promoter states from single-cell gene expression data. Application of bursty MCEM2 to data from the endogenous mouse glutaminase promoter reveals nearly deterministic promoter OFF times, consistent with a multi-step activation mechanism consisting of 10 or more inactive states. Our novel approach to modeling promoter fluctuations together with bursty MCEM2 provides powerful tools for characterizing transcriptional bursting across genes under different environmental conditions.

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