Design of the lac gene circuit revisited

Michael A. Savageau

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Scopus citations


The lactose (lac) operon of Escherichia coli serves as the paradigm for gene regulation, not only for bacteria, but also for all biological systems from simple phage to humans. The details of the systems may differ, but the key conceptual framework remains, and the original system continues to reveal deeper insights with continued experimental and theoretical study. Nearly as long lasting in impact as the pivotal work of Jacob and Monod is the classic experiment of Novick and Weiner in which they demonstrated all-or-none gene expression in response to an artificial inducer. These results are often cited in claims that normal gene expression is in fact a discontinuous bistable phenomenon. In this paper, I review several levels of analysis of the lac system and introduce another perspective based on the construction of the system design space. These represent variations on a theme, based on a simply stated design principle, that captures the key qualitative features of the system in a largely mechanism-independent fashion. Moreover, this principle can be readily interpreted in terms of specific mechanisms to make predictions regarding monostable vs. bistable behavior. The regions of design space representing bifurcations are compared with the corresponding regions identified through bifurcation analysis. I present evidence based on biological considerations as well as modeling and analysis to suggest that induction of the lac system in its natural setting is a monostable continuously graded phenomenon. Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that the lac stability question remains unsettled, and it undoubtedly will remain so until there are definitive experimental results.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)19-38
Number of pages20
JournalMathematical Biosciences
Issue number1
StatePublished - May 2011


  • Biochemical systems analysis
  • Biological design principles
  • Gene circuitry
  • Power-law formalism
  • System design space

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine(all)
  • Immunology and Microbiology(all)
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • Modeling and Simulation
  • Statistics and Probability
  • Applied Mathematics


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