A theory for an non-equilibrium phase transition in a driven biochemical network is presented. The theory is based on the chemical master equation (CME) formulation of mesoscopic biochemical reactions and the mathematical method of large deviations. The large deviations theory provides an analytical tool connecting the macroscopic multi-stability of an open chemical system with the multi-scale dynamics of its mesoscopic counterpart. It shows a corresponding non-equilibrium phase transition among multiple stochastic attractors. As an example, in the canonical phosphorylation–dephosphorylation system with feedback that exhibits bistability, we show that the non-equilibrium steady-state (NESS) phase transition has all the characteristics of classic equilibrium phase transition: Maxwell construction, a discontinuous first-derivative of the ‘free energy function’, Lee–Yang's zero for a generating function and a critical point that matches the cusp in nonlinear bifurcation theory. To the biochemical system, the mathematical analysis suggests three distinct timescales and needed levels of description. They are (i) molecular signalling, (ii) biochemical network nonlinear dynamics, and (iii) cellular evolution. For finite mesoscopic systems such as a cell, motions associated with (i) and (iii) are stochastic while that with (ii) is deterministic. Both (ii) and (iii) are emergent properties of a dynamic biochemical network.
- Received April 7, 2010.
- Accepted April 23, 2010.
- This Journal is © 2010 The Royal Society