Frank, S. A. 2013. Input-output relations in biological systems: measurement, information and the Hill equation. Biology Direct 8:31.
Biological systems produce outputs in response to variable inputs. Input-output relations tend to follow a few regular patterns. For example, many chemical processes follow the S-shaped Hill equation relation between input concentrations and output concentrations. That Hill equation pattern contradicts the fundamental Michaelis-Menten theory of enzyme kinetics. I use the discrepancy between the expected Michaelis-Menten process of enzyme kinetics and the widely observed Hill equation pattern of biological systems to explore the general properties of biological input-output relations. I start with the various processes that could explain the discrepancy between basic chemistry and biological pattern. I then expand the analysis to consider broader aspects that shape biological input-output relations. Key aspects include the input-output processing by component subsystems and how those components combine to determine the system’s overall input-output relations. That aggregate structure often imposes strong regularity on underlying disorder. Aggregation imposes order by dissipating information as it flows through the components of a system. The dissipation of information may be evaluated by the analysis of measurement and precision, explaining why certain common scaling patterns arise so frequently in input-output relations. I discuss how aggregation, measurement and scale provide a framework for understanding the relations between pattern and process. The regularity imposed by those broader structural aspects sets the contours of variation in biology. Thus, biological design will also tend to follow those contours. Natural selection may act primarily to modulate system properties within those broad constraints.