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Studies in Physical Biology: Exploring Allosteric Regulation, Enzymatic Error Correction, and Cytoskeletal Self-Organization Using Theory and Modeling


Galstyan, Vahe (2022) Studies in Physical Biology: Exploring Allosteric Regulation, Enzymatic Error Correction, and Cytoskeletal Self-Organization Using Theory and Modeling. Dissertation (Ph.D.), California Institute of Technology. doi:10.7907/1fzr-1240.


Physical biology offers powerful tools for quantitatively dissecting the various aspects of cellular life that one cannot attribute to inanimate matter. Signature examples of living matter include adaptation, self-organization, and division. In this thesis, we explore different interconnected facets of these processes using statistical mechanics, nonequilibrium thermodynamics, and biophysical modeling.

One of the key mechanisms underlying physiological and evolutionary adaptation is allosteric regulation. It allows cells to dynamically respond to changes in the state of the environment often expressed through altered levels of different environmental cues. The first thread of our work is dedicated to exploring the combinatorial diversity of responses available to allosteric proteins that are subject to multi-ligand regulation. We demonstrate that proteins characterized through the Monod-Wyman-Changeux model of allostery and operating at thermodynamic equilibrium are capable of eliciting a wide range of response behaviors which include the kinds known from the field of digital circuits (e.g., NAND logic response), as well as more sophisticated computations such as ratiometric sensing.

Despite the fact that biomolecules at thermodynamic equilibrium are able to orchestrate a variety of fascinating behaviors, the cell is ultimately 'alive' because it constantly metabolizes nutrients and generates energy to drive functions that cannot be sustained in the absence of energy consumption. One prominent example of such a function is nonequilibrium error correction present in high-fidelity processes such as protein synthesis, DNA replication, or pathogen recognition. We begin the second thread of our work by providing a conceptual understanding of the prevailing mechanism used in explaining this high-fidelity behavior, namely that of kinetic proofreading. Specifically, we develop an allostery-based mechanochemical model of a kinetic proofreader where chemical driving is replaced with a mechanical engine with tunable knobs which allow modulating the amount of dissipation in a transparent way. We demonstrate how varying levels of error correction can be attained at different regimes of dissipation and offer intuitive interpretations for the conditions required for efficient biological proofreading.

We then extend the notion of error correction to equilibrium enzymes not endowed with structural features typically required for proofreading. We show that, under physiological conditions, purely diffusing enzymes can take advantage of the existing nonequilibrium organization of their substrates in space and enhance the fidelity of catalysis. Our proposed mechanism called spatial proofreading offers a novel perspective on spatial structures and compartmentalization in cells as a route to specificity.

In the last thread of the thesis, we make a transition from molecular-scale studies to the mesoscopic scale, and explore the principles of self-organization in nonequilibrium structures formed in reconstituted microtubule-motor mixtures. In particular, we develop a theoretical framework that predicts the spatial distribution of kinesin motors in radially symmetric microtubule asters formed under various conditions using optogenetic control. The model manages to accurately recapitulate the experimentally measured motor profiles through effective parameters that are specific for each kind of kinesin motor used. Our theoretical work of rigorously assessing the motor distribution therefore offers an avenue for understanding the link between the microscopic motor properties (e.g., processivity or binding affinity) and the large-scale structures they create.

In all, the thesis encompasses a series of case studies with shared themes of allostery and nonequilibrium, highlighting the capacity of living matter to perform remarkable tasks inaccessible to nonliving materials.

Item Type:Thesis (Dissertation (Ph.D.))
Subject Keywords:Nonequilibrium, kinetic proofreading, self-organization, living matter
Degree Grantor:California Institute of Technology
Division:Chemistry and Chemical Engineering
Major Option:Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics
Thesis Availability:Public (worldwide access)
Research Advisor(s):
  • Phillips, Robert B.
Thesis Committee:
  • Thomson, Matthew (chair)
  • Van Valen, David A.
  • Winfree, Erik
  • Phillips, Robert B.
Defense Date:12 August 2021
Funding AgencyGrant Number
NIHDP1 OD000217
NIH1R35 GM118043
NIHR01 GM085286
John Templeton Foundation51250
John Templeton Foundation60973
Record Number:CaltechTHESIS:08242021-212959886
Persistent URL:
Related URLs:
URLURL TypeDescription associated with Chapters 2 and S2. associated with Chapters 3 and S3. associated with Chapters 4 and S4.
Galstyan, Vahe0000-0001-7073-9175
Default Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:14339
Deposited By: Vahe Galstyan
Deposited On:25 Aug 2021 16:20
Last Modified:08 Nov 2023 00:41

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