Regulatory pathways inside living cells employ feed-forward architectures to fulfill essential signal processing functions that aid in the interpretation of various types of inputs through noise-filtering, fold-change detection and adaptation. Although it has been demonstrated computationally that a coherent feed-forward loop (CFFL) can function as noise filter, a property essential to decoding complex temporal signals, this motif has not been extensively characterized experimentally or integrated into larger networks. Here we use post-transcriptional regulation to implement and characterize a synthetic CFFL in an Escherichia coli cell-free transcription-translation system and build larger composite feed-forward architectures. We employ microfluidic flow reactors to probe the response of the CFFL circuit using both persistent and short, noise-like inputs and analyze the influence of different circuit components on the steady-state and dynamics of the output. We demonstrate that our synthetic CFFL implementation can reliably repress background activity compared to a reference circuit, but displays low potential as a temporal filter, and validate these findings using a computational model. Our results offer practical insight into the putative noise-filtering behavior of CFFLs and show that this motif can be used to mitigate leakage and increase the fold-change of the output of synthetic genetic circuits.
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© 2021 The Authors. Published by American Chemical Society.