Cells generate phenotypic diversity both during development and in response to stressful and changing environments, aiding survival. Functionally vital cell fate decisions from a range of phenotypic choices are made by regulatory networks, the dynamics of which rely on gene expression and hence depend on the cellular energy budget (and particularly ATP levels). However, despite pronounced cell-to-cell ATP differences observed across biological systems, the influence of energy availability on regulatory network dynamics is often overlooked as a cellular decision-making modulator, limiting our knowledge of how energy budgets affect cell behaviour. Here, we consider a mathematical model of a highly generalisable, ATP-dependent, decision-making regulatory network, and show that cell-to-cell ATP variability changes the sets of decisions a cell can make. Our model shows that increasing intracellular energy levels can increase the number of supported stable phenotypes, corresponding to increased decision-making capacity. Model cells with sub-threshold intracellular energy are limited to a singular phenotype, forcing the adoption of a specific cell fate. We suggest that energetic differences between cells may be an important consideration to help explain observed variability in cellular decision-making across a broad range of biological systems, including bacteria and the blood stem cell system.

  • This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License.

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