Design principles for elementary gene circuits: Elements, methods, and examples

Michael A. Savageau

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

152 Scopus citations


The control of gene expression involves complex circuits that exhibit enormous variation in design. For years the most convenient explanation for these variations was historical accident. According to this view, evolution is a haphazard process in which many different designs are generated by chance; there are many ways to accomplish the same thing, and so no further meaning can be attached to such different but equivalent designs. In recent years a more satisfying explanation based on design principles has been found for at least certain aspects of gene circuitry. By design principle we mean a rule that characterizes some biological feature exhibited by a class of systems such that discovery of the rule allows one not only to understand known instances but also to predict new instances within the class. The central importance of gene regulation in modern molecular biology provides strong motivation to search for more of these underlying design principles. The search is in its infancy and there are undoubtedly many design principles that remain to be discovered. The focus of this three-part review will be the class of elementary gene circuits in bacteria. The first part reviews several elements of design that enter into the characterization of elementary gene circuits in prokaryotic organisms. Each of these elements exhibits a variety of realizations whose meaning is generally unclear. The second part reviews mathematical methods used to represent, analyze, and compare alternative designs. Emphasis is placed on particular methods that have been used successfully to identify design principles for elementary gene circuits. The third part reviews four design principles that make specific predictions regarding (1) two alternative modes of gene control, (2) three patterns of coupling gene expression in elementary circuits, (3) two types of switches in inducible gene circuits, and (4) the realizability of alternative gene circuits and their response to phased environmental cues. In each case, the predictions are supported by experimental evidence. These results are important for understanding the function, design, and evolution of elementary gene circuits.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)142-159
Number of pages18
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2001
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Applied Mathematics
  • Mathematical Physics
  • Physics and Astronomy(all)
  • Statistical and Nonlinear Physics


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