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Quantifying the landscape and kinetic paths for epithelial–mesenchymal transition from a core circuit


Epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT), as a crucial process in embryonic development and cancer metastasis, has been investigated extensively. However, how to quantify the global stability and transition dynamics for EMT under fluctuations remains to be elucidated. Starting from a core EMT genetic circuit composed of three key proteins or microRNAs (microRNA-200, ZEB and SNAIL), we uncovered the potential landscape for the EMT process. Three attractors emerge from the landscape, which correspond to epithelial, mesenchymal and partial EMT states respectively. Based on the landscape, we analyzed two important quantities of the EMT system: the barrier heights between different basins of attraction that describe the degree of difficulty for EMT or backward transition, and the mean first passage time (MFPT) that characterizes the kinetic transition rate. These quantities can be harnessed as measurements for the stability of cell types and the degree of difficulty of transitions between different cell types. We also calculated the minimum action paths (MAPs) by path integral approaches. The MAP delineates the transition processes between different cell types quantitatively. We propose two different EMT processes: a direct EMT from E to P, and a step-wise EMT going through an intermediate state, depending on different extracellular environments. The landscape and kinetic paths we acquired offer a new physical and quantitative way for understanding the mechanisms of EMT processes, and indicate the possible roles for the intermediate states.

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