Secretion of type I interferons (IFN) by infected cells mediates protection against many viruses, but prolonged or excessive type I IFN secretion can lead to immune pathology. A proper type I IFN response must therefore maintain a balance between protection and excessive IFN secretion. It has been widely noted that the type I IFN response is driven by positive feedback and is heterogeneous, with only a fraction of infected cells upregulating IFN expression even in clonal cell lines, but the functional roles of feedback and heterogeneity in balancing protection and excessive IFN secretion are not clear. To investigate the functional roles for feedback and heterogeneity, we constructed a mathematical model coupling IFN and viral dynamics that extends existing mathematical models by accounting for feedback and heterogeneity. We fit our model to five existing datasets, reflecting different experimental systems. Fitting across datasets allowed us to compare the IFN response across the systems and suggested different signatures of feedback and heterogeneity in the different systems. Further, through numerical experiments, we generated hypotheses of functional roles for IFN feedback and heterogeneity consistent with our mathematical model. We hypothesize an inherent tradeoff in the IFN response: a positive feedback loop prevents excessive IFN secretion, but also makes the IFN response vulnerable to viral antagonism. We hypothesize that cellular heterogeneity of the IFN response functions to protect the feedback loop from viral antagonism. Verification of our hypotheses will require further experimental studies. Our work provides a basis for analyzing the type I IFN response across systems.
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