Only accessible information is useful: Insights from gradient-mediated patterning

Mikhail Tikhonov, Shawn C. Little, Thomas Gregor

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


Information theory is gaining popularity as a tool to characterize performance of biological systems. However, information is commonly quantified without reference to whether or how a system could extract and use it; as a result, information-theoretic quantities are easily misinterpreted. Here, we take the example of pattern-forming developmental systems which are commonly structured as cascades of sequential gene expression steps. Such a multi-tiered structure appears to constitute sub-optimal use of the positional information provided by the input morphogen because noise is added at each tier. However, one must distinguish between the total information in a morphogen and information that can be usefully extracted and interpreted by downstream elements. We demonstrate that quantifying the information that is accessible to the system naturally explains the prevalence of multi-tiered network architectures as a consequence of the noise inherent to the control of gene expression. We support our argument with empirical observations from patterning along the major body axis of the fruit fly embryo. We use this example to highlight the limitations of the standard information-theoretic characterization of biological signalling, which are frequently de-emphasized, and illustrate how they can be resolved.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number150486
JournalRoyal Society Open Science
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General


  • Developmental biology
  • Drosophila
  • Genetic regulation
  • Information theory


Dive into the research topics of 'Only accessible information is useful: Insights from gradient-mediated patterning'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this