A fundamental trade-off in covalent switching and its circumvention by enzyme bifunctionality in glucose homeostasis
Covalent modification provides a mechanism for modulating molecular state and regulating physiology. A cycle of competing enzymes that add and remove a single modification can act as a molecular switch between "on" and "off" and has been widely studied as a core motif in systems biology. Here, we exploit the recently developed "linear framework" for time scale separation to determine the general principles of such switches. These methods are not limited to Michaelis-Menten assumptions, and our conclusions hold for enzymes whose mechanisms may be arbitrarily complicated. We show that switching efficiency improves with increasing irreversibility of the enzymes and that the on/off transition occurs when the ratio of enzyme levels reaches a value that depends only on the rate constants. Fluctuations in enzyme levels, which habitually occur due to cellular heterogeneity, can cause flipping back and forth between on and off, leading to incoherent mosaic behavior in tissues, that worsens as switching becomes sharper. This trade-off can be circumvented if enzyme levels are correlated. In particular, if the competing catalytic domains are on the same protein but do not influence each other, the resulting bifunctional enzyme can switch sharply while remaining coherent. In the mammalian liver, the switch between glycolysis and gluconeogenesis is regulated by the bifunctional 6-phosphofructo-2-kinase/fructose-2,6-bisphosphatase (PFK-2/FBPase-2). We suggest that bifunctionality of PFK-2/FBPase-2 complements the metabolic zonation of the liver by ensuring coherent switching in response to insulin and glucagon.