Background: Switch-like and oscillatory dynamical systems are widely observed in biology. We investigate the simplest biological switch that is composed of a single molecule that can be autocatalytically converted between two opposing activity forms. We test how this simple network can keep its switching behaviour under perturbations in the system. Results: We show that this molecule can work as a robust bistable system, even for alterations in the reactions that drive the switching between various conformations. We propose that this single molecule system could work as a primitive biological sensor and show by steady state analysis of a mathematical model of the system that it could switch between possible states for changes in environmental signals. Particularly, we show that a single molecule phosphorylation-dephosphorylation switch could work as a nucleotide or energy sensor. We also notice that a given set of reductions in the reaction network can lead to the emergence of oscillatory behaviour. Conclusions: We propose that evolution could have converted this switch into a single molecule oscillator, which could have been used as a primitive timekeeper. We discuss how the structure of the simplest known circadian clock regulatory system, found in cyanobacteria, resembles the proposed single molecule oscillator. Besides, we speculate if such minimal systems could have existed in an RNA world.

Original languageEnglish
Article number70
JournalBmc Systems Biology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 18 Jun 2018


  • Approximate majority
  • Bistability
  • Circadian rhythm
  • Computational biology
  • Evolution
  • Mathematical modelling
  • Multistability
  • Networks
  • Oscillation
  • RNA world


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