An overarching goal in molecular biology is to gain an understanding of the mechanistic basis underlying biochemical systems. Success is critical if we are to predict effectively the outcome of drug treatments and the development of abnormal phenotypes. However, data from most experimental studies is typically noisy and sparse. This allows multiple potential mechanisms to account for experimental observations, and often devising experiments to test each is not feasible. Here, we introduce a novel strategy that discriminates among putative models based on their repertoire of qualitatively distinct phenotypes, without relying on knowledge of specific values for rate constants and binding constants. As an illustration, we apply this strategy to two synthetic gene circuits exhibiting anomalous behaviors. Our results show that the conventional models, based on their well-characterized components, cannot account for the experimental observations. We examine a total of 40 alternative hypotheses and show that only 5 have the potential to reproduce the experimental data, and one can do so with biologically relevant parameter values.
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