Systematic identifiability testing for unambiguous mechanistic modeling - application to JAK-STAT, MAP kinase, and NF-kappaB signaling pathway models
BACKGROUND:When creating mechanistic mathematical models for biological signaling processes it is tempting to include as many known biochemical interactions into one large model as possible. For the JAK-STAT, MAP kinase, and NF-kappaB pathways a lot of biological insight is available, and as a consequence, large mathematical models have emerged. For large models the question arises whether unknown model parameters can uniquely be determined by parameter estimation from measured data. Systematic approaches to answering this question are indispensable since the uniqueness of model parameter values is essential for predictive mechanistic modeling.RESULTS:We propose an eigenvalue based method for efficiently testing identifiability of large ordinary differential models and compare this approach to three existing ones. The methods are benchmarked by applying them to models of the signaling pathways mentioned above. In all cases the eigenvalue method proposed here and the orthogonal method find the largest set of identifiable parameters, thus clearly outperforming the other approaches. The identifiability analysis shows that the pathway models are not identifiable, even under the strong assumption that all system state variables are measurable. We demonstrate how the results of the identifiability analysis can be used for model simplification.CONCLUSION:While it has undoubtedly contributed to recent advances in systems biology, mechanistic modeling by itself does not guarantee unambiguous descriptions of biological processes. We show that some recent signal transduction pathway models have reached a level of detail that is not warranted. Rigorous identifiability tests reveal that even if highly idealized experiments could be carried out to measure all state variables of these signaling pathways, some unknown parameters could still not be estimated. The identifiability tests therefore show that the level of detail of the investigated models is too high in principle, not just because too little experimental information is available. We demonstrate how the proposed method can be combined with biological insight, however, to simplify these models.