Increased biological complexity is generally associated with the addition of new genetic information, which must be integrated into the existing regulatory network that operates within the cell. General arguments on network control, as well as several recent genomic observations, indicate that regulatory gene number grows disproportionally fast with increasing genome size.
We present two models for the growth of regulatory networks. Both predict that the number of transcriptional regulators will scale quadratically with total gene number. This appears to be in good quantitative agreement with genomic data from 89 fully sequenced prokaryotes. Moreover, the empirical curve predicts that any new non-regulatory gene will be accompanied by more than one additional regulator beyond a genome size of about 20,000 genes, within a factor of two of the observed ceiling.
Our analysis places transcriptional regulatory networks in the class of accelerating networks. We suggest that prokaryotic complexity may have been limited throughout evolution by regulatory overhead, and conversely that complex eukaryotes must have bypassed this constraint by novel strategies.