Data-based stochastic modeling reveals sources of activity bursts in single-cell TGF-β signaling


Cells sense their surrounding by employing intracellular signaling pathways that transmit hormonal signals from the cell membrane to the nucleus. TGF-β/SMAD signaling encodes various cell fates, controls tissue homeostasis and is deregulated in diseases such as cancer. The pathway shows strong heterogeneity at the single-cell level, but quantitative insights into mechanisms underlying fluctuations at various time scales are still missing, partly due to inefficiency in the calibration of stochastic models that mechanistically describe signaling processes. In this work we analyze single-cell TGF-β/SMAD signaling and show that it exhibits temporal stochastic bursts which are dose-dependent and whose number and magnitude correlate with cell migration. We propose a stochastic modeling approach to mechanistically describe these pathway fluctuations with high computational efficiency. Employing high-order numerical integration and fitting to burst statistics we enable efficient quantitative parameter estimation and discriminate models that assume noise in different reactions at the receptor level. This modeling approach suggests that stochasticity in the internalization of TGF-β receptors into endosomes plays a key role in the observed temporal bursting. Further, the model predicts the single-cell dynamics of TGF-β/SMAD signaling in untested conditions, e.g., successfully reflects memory effects of signaling noise and cellular sensitivity towards repeated stimulation. Taken together, our computational framework based on burst analysis, noise modeling and path computation scheme is a suitable tool for the data-based modeling of complex signaling pathways, capable of identifying the source of temporal noise.

PLOS Computational Biology