Emergent Criticality in Coupled Boolean Networks

Chris Kang, Madelynn McElroy, and Nikolaos K. Voulgarakis

Entropy 2023, 25(2), 235

Early embryonic development involves forming all specialized cells from a fluid-like mass of identical stem cells. The differentiation process consists of a series of symmetry-breaking events, starting from a high-symmetry state (stem cells) to a low-symmetry state (specialized cells). This scenario closely resembles phase transitions in statistical mechanics. To theoretically study this hypothesis, we model embryonic stem cell (ESC) populations through a coupled Boolean network (BN) model. The interaction is applied using a multilayer Ising model that considers paracrine and autocrine signaling, along with external interventions. It is demonstrated that cell-to-cell variability can be interpreted as a mixture of steady-state probability distributions. Simulations have revealed that such models can undergo a series of first- and second-order phase transitions as a function of the system parameters that describe gene expression noise and interaction strengths. These phase transitions result in spontaneous symmetry-breaking events that generate new types of cells characterized by various steady-state distributions. Coupled BNs have also been shown to self-organize in states that allow spontaneous cell differentiation.

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