Genetic switches are ubiquitous in nature, frequently associated with the control of cellular functions and developmental programs. In the realm of synthetic biology, it is of great interest to engineer genetic circuits that can change their mode of operation from monostable to bistable, or even to multistable, based on the experimental fine-tuning of readily accessible parameters. In order to successfully design robust, bistable synthetic circuits to be used as biomolecular probes, or understand modes of operation of such naturally occurring circuits, we must identify parameters that are key in determining their characteristics.
Here, we analyze the bistability properties of a general, asymmetric genetic toggle switch based on a chemical-reaction kinetic description. By making appropriate approximations, we are able to reduce the system to two coupled differential equations. Their deterministic stability analysis and stochastic numerical simulations are in excellent agreement. Drawing upon this general framework, we develop a model of an experimentally realized asymmetric bistable genetic switch based on the LacI and TetR repressors. By varying the concentrations of two synthetic inducers, doxycycline and isopropyl β-D-1-thiogalactopyranoside, we predict that it will be possible to repeatedly fine-tune the mode of operation of this genetic switch from monostable to bistable, as well as the switching rates over many orders of magnitude, in an experimental setting. Furthermore, we find that the shape and size of the bistability region is closely connected with plasmid copy number.
Based on our numerical calculations of the LacI-TetR asymmetric bistable switch phase diagram, we propose a generic work-flow for developing and applying biomolecular probes: Their initial state of operation should be specified by controlling inducer concentrations, and dilution due to cellular division would turn the probes into memory devices in which information could be preserved over multiple generations. Additionally, insights from our analysis of the LacI-TetR system suggest that this particular system is readily available to be employed in this kind of probe.