Smith, E.,Krishnamurthy, S.,Fontana, W.,Krakauer, D.
We study a mechanism for reliable switching in biomolecular signal-transduction cascades. Steady bistable states are created by system-size cooperative effects in populations of proteins, in spite of the fact that the phosphorylation-state transitions of any molecule, by means of which the switch is implemented, are highly stochastic. The emergence of switching is a nonequilibrium phase transition in an energetically driven, dissipative system described by a master equation. We use operator and functional integral methods from reaction-diffusion theory to solve for the phase structure, noise spectrum, and escape trajectories and first-passage times of a class of minimal models of switches, showing how all critical properties for switch behavior can be computed within a unified framework.