Scientific Reports

A flexible ontology for inference of emergent whole cell function from relationships between subcellular processes

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Whole cell responses arise from coordinated interactions between diverse human gene products functioning within various pathways underlying sub-cellular processes (SCP). Lower level SCPs interact to form higher level SCPs, often in a context specific manner to give rise to whole cell function. We sought to determine if capturing such relationships enables us to describe the emergence of whole cell functions from interacting SCPs. We developed the Molecular Biology of the Cell Ontology based on standard cell biology and biochemistry textbooks and review articles. Currently, our ontology contains 5,384 genes, 753 SCPs and 19,180 expertly curated gene-SCP associations. Our algorithm to populate the SCPs with genes enables extension of the ontology on demand and the adaption of the ontology to the continuously growing cell biological knowledge. Since whole cell responses most often arise from the coordinated activity of multiple SCPs, we developed a dynamic enrichment algorithm that flexibly predicts SCP-SCP relationships beyond the current taxonomy. This algorithm enables us to identify interactions between SCPs as a basis for higher order function in a context dependent manner, allowing us to provide a detailed description of how SCPs together can give rise to whole cell functions. We conclude that this ontology can, from omics data sets, enable the development of detailed SCP networks for predictive modeling of emergent whole cell functions.


18 Dec 2017


Scientific Reports