BACKGROUND: The ultimate aim of systems biology is to understand and describe how molecular components interact to manifest collective behaviour that is the sum of the single parts. Building a network of molecular interactions is the basic step in modelling a complex entity such as the cell. Even if gene-gene interactions only partially describe real networks because of post-transcriptional modifications and protein regulation, using microarray technology it is possible to combine measurements for thousands of genes into a single analysis step that provides a picture of the cell's gene expression. Several databases provide information about known molecular interactions and various methods have been developed to infer gene networks from expression data. However, network topology alone is not enough to perform simulations and predictions of how a molecular system will respond to perturbations. Rules for interactions among the single parts are needed for a complete definition of the network behaviour. Another interesting question is how to integrate information carried by the network topology, which can be derived from the literature, with large-scale experimental data. RESULTS: Here we propose an algorithm, called inference of regulatory interaction schema (IRIS), that uses an iterative approach to map gene expression profile values (both steady-state and time-course) into discrete states and a simple probabilistic method to infer the regulatory functions of the network. These interaction rules are integrated into a factor graph model. We test IRIS on two synthetic networks to determine its accuracy and compare it to other methods. We also apply IRIS to gene expression microarray data for the Saccharomyces cerevisiae cell cycle and for human B-cells and compare the results to literature findings. CONCLUSIONS: IRIS is a rapid and efficient tool for the inference of regulatory relations in gene networks. A topological description of the network and a matrix of gene expression profiles are required as input to the algorithm. IRIS maps gene expression data onto discrete values and then computes regulatory functions as conditional probability tables. The suitability of the method is demonstrated for synthetic data and microarray data. The resulting network can also be embedded in a factor graph model.
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