ABSTRACT: BACKGROUND: A prerequisite for the mechanistic simulation of a biochemical system is detailed knowledge of its kinetic parameters. Despite recent experimental advances, the estimation of unknown parameter values from observed data is still a bottleneck for obtaining accurate simulation results. Many methods exist for parameter estimation in deterministic biochemical systems; methods for discrete stochastic systems are less well developed. Given the probabilistic nature of stochastic biochemical models, a natural approach is to choose parameter values that maximize the probability of the observed data with respect to the unknown parameters, a.k.a. the maximum likelihood parameter estimates (MLEs). MLE computation for all but the simplest models requires the simulation of many system trajectories that are consistent with experimental data. For models with unknown parameters, this presents a computational challenge, as the generation of consistent trajectories can be an extremely rare occurrence. RESULTS: We have developed Monte Carlo Expectation-Maximization with Modified Cross-Entropy Method (MCEM2): an accelerated method for calculating MLEs that combines advances in rare event simulation with a computationally efficient version of the Monte Carlo expectation-maximization (MCEM) algorithm. Our method requires no prior knowledge regarding parameter values, and it automatically provides a multivariate parameter uncertainty estimate. We applied the method to five stochastic systems of increasing complexity, progressing from an analytically tractable pure-birth model to a computationally demanding model of yeast-polarization. Our results demonstrate that MCEM2 substantially accelerates MLE computation on all tested models when compared to a stand-alone version of MCEM. Additionally, we show how our method identifies parameter values for certain classes of models more accurately than two recently proposed computationally efficient methods. CONCLUSIONS: This work provides a novel, accelerated version of a likelihood-based parameter estimation method that can be readily applied to stochastic biochemical systems. In addition, our results suggest opportunities for added efficiency improvements that will further enhance our ability to mechanistically simulate biological processes.
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