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Do cells use passwords in cell-state transitions? Is cell signaling sometimes encrypted?


Organisms must maintain proper regulation including defense and healing. Life-threatening problems may be caused by pathogens or by a multicellular organism’s own cells through cancer or autoimmune disorders. Life evolved solutions to these problems that can be conceptualized through the lens of information security, which is a well-developed field in computer science. Here I argue that taking an information security view of cells is not merely semantics, but useful to explain features of signaling, regulation, and defense. An information security perspective also offers a conduit for cross-fertilization of advanced ideas from computer science and the potential for biology to inform computer science. First, I consider whether cells use passwords, i.e., initiation sequences that are required for subsequent signals to have effects, by analyzing the concept of pioneer transcription factors in chromatin regulation and cellular reprogramming. Second, I consider whether cells may encrypt signal transduction cascades. Encryption could benefit cells by making it more difficult for pathogens or oncogenes to hijack cell networks. By using numerous molecules, cells may gain a security advantage in particular against viruses, whose genome sizes are typically under selection pressure. I provide a simple conceptual argument for how cells may perform encryption through posttranslational modifications, complex formation, and chromatin accessibility. I invoke information theory to provide a criterion of an entropy spike to assess whether a signaling cascade has encryption-like features. I discuss how the frequently invoked concept of context dependency may oversimplify more advanced features of cell signaling networks, such as encryption. Therefore, by considering that biochemical networks may be even more complex than commonly realized we may be better able to understand defenses against pathogens and pathologies.

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The author thanks H. Alexander Ebhardt for critical comments and discussion. The author also thanks two anonymous reviewers for critical comments and suggestions, including bringing to his attention the encrypted genomes of Oxytricha and Stylonychia.


Funding for this study was obtained from the US National Cancer Institute (NCI) P30 Cancer Center Support Grant (CCSG) P30 CA008748 to A.R. The funding covers general support for the research center.

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AR wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Alex Root.

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Root, A. Do cells use passwords in cell-state transitions? Is cell signaling sometimes encrypted?. Theory Biosci. 139, 87–93 (2020).

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  • Cell signaling
  • Reprogramming
  • Host–pathogen interactions
  • Information security
  • Biochemical passwords
  • Biochemical encryption
  • Posttranslational modification
  • Chromatin state
  • Context dependency