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Abstract. The aim of this paper is to provide a fractional generalization of the Gom-

pertz law via a Caputo-like definition of fractional derivative of a function with respect

to another function. In particular, we observe that the model presented appears to be

substantially different from the other attempt of fractional modifications of this model,

arXiv:1807.05937v1 [physics.bio-ph] 16 Jul 2018

since the fractional nature is carried along by the general solution even in its asymp-

totic behaviour for long times. We then validate the presented model by employing it as

reference frame to model three biological systems of peculiar interest for biophysics and

environmental engineering, namely: dark fermentation, photofermentation and microal-

gae biomass growth.

1. Introduction

The Gompertz curve was first introduced in [1] as an empirical model for describing

the human age distribution in a given community, within the analysis of mortality tables.

Then, this distribution has found many applications in biophysics, with particular regard

for the mathematical modelling of tumour growth.

The Gompertz law, from a mathematical perspective, is a Malthusian-type growth

model with a time-dependent exponentially decreasing rate. The stochastic roots of this

model have been carefully addresed by De Lauro et al. in [2] and an interesting general-

ization of this model has been recently presented by Di Crescenzo and Spina in [3].

Applications of fractional calculus [4–6] to counting processes and population modelling

has gained increasing attention over the last few yiears. This can clearly be inffered from

the extent of the current literature devoted to fractional Poisson processes [7–10], fractional

birth-death processes [11, 12] and fractional Malthusian models [13].

A first interesting attempt to consider a generalization of the Gompertz law, by means

of fractional calculus tools, has been introduced by Bolton et al. in [14]. Besides, very

recently, Almeida and collaborators [13, 15, 16] have shown the peculiar relevance, for

physical applications, of the notion of fractional derivative of a function with respect to

another function.

Inspired by these investigations, in this paper we suggest a new generalization of the

Gompertz model based on the mathematical approach developed by Almeida in [15].

We compare this new approach with the previous one developed by Bolton et al. [14]

and characterize its main features. Then, we test the proposed model for three distinct

biological systems that are of particular interest for applications in environmental engi-

neering.

Key words and phrases. Gompertz growth law; fractional calculus; Mittag-Leffler functions; Fractional

derivative of a function with respect to another function.

1

2 LUIGI FRUNZO1 , ROBERTO GARRA2 , ANDREA GIUSTI3 , AND VINCENZO LUONGO4

The seed behind our idea for a generalization of the Gompertz law via fractional calculus

techniques is inspired by a recent study by Bolton et al. [14]. Indeed, in [14] the authors

tested their proposal for a fractional improvement of the aforementioned empirical law by

comparing their theoretical model with an experimental dataset concerning the volume

growth of the Rhabdomyosarcoma tumour in mice.

Let us first recall the key ideas behind the original formulations of both the Gompertz

law and of its modification proposed by Boloton and collaborators.

The original formulation of Gompertz’s model arises from the following evolution equa-

tion,

ˆ ˙

1 dV V

(2.1) “ α ´ β ln ,

V dt V0

where V “ V ptq is the volume of a tumour at time t, V0 “ V p0q, while α and β are the

so called kinetic parameters of the tumour (see e.g. [17]). Denoting by y “ lnpV {V0 q,

Eq. (2.1) reduces to

dy

(2.2) “ α ´ βy

dt

whose solution is given by yptq “ αβ p1 ´ e´βt q.

Then, going back to the physical variable V ptq, the Gompertz law is obtained in its

well-known form

„ ´ ¯

α ´βt

(2.3) V ptq “ V0 exp 1´e .

β

It is also worth remarking that the Gompertz law is also recovered as a simple Malthu-

sian model (see [3]), namely

dN

(2.4) “ λptq N ,

dt

with an exponentially time-decreasing rate

(2.5) λptq “ αe´βt ,

where N “ N ptq now represents the population size at time t.

The fractional generalization considered by Bolton et al. in [14] is obtained by replacing

the first order time derivative in (2.2) with a Caputo fractional derivative of order µ P p0, 2q.

According to their analysis, it seems that the physically meaningful range for the fractional

order parameter µ is µ P p0, 1s (in particular, the best agreement between the model and

the data is obtained for µ “ 0.68). This result can be further justified by the fact that the

solution of this improved model involves the Mittag-Leffler function that has an oscillating

behaviour for µ ą 1. Indeed, the general solution of the evolution equation discussed in [14]

is simply given by

" *

α µ

(2.6) Vµ ptq “ V0 exp r1 ´ Eµ p´βt qs ,

β

where

8

ÿ p´βtµ qk

(2.7) Eµ p´βtµ q “ ,

k“0

Γpµk ` 1q

MODELLING BIOLOGICAL SYSTEMS WITH AN IMPROVED FRACTIONAL GOMPERTZ LAW 3

is the well-known Mittag-Leffler function, that plays a key-role in the theory of fractional

differential equations (see e.g. the recent monograph [18], and [19, 20] for a precise discus-

sion on its numerical evaluation).

Vµ (t)

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t

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0.2, 0.5, 0.6, 1.0 (i.e. the dashed line represents the ordinary Gompertz

law).

on the application of fractional Caputo derivatives with respect to another function. This

idea is inspired by the recent studies by Almeida and coauthors [13,15,16], where this new

approach was applied to the study of population growth processes.

Our approach differs substantially from the one considered by Bolton et al. in [14] due

to the different implementation of the fractionalization. Indeed, if we consider the model

equation for the Malthusian model that leads to a Gompertz growth, namely Eq. (2.4)

with the time dependent rate in Eq. (2.5), that reads

dN

(2.8) “ αN , eβ t

dt

we can simply perform a fractionalization of the latter by introducing the fractional de-

rivative of N ptq with respect to eβt .

Hence, the new model equation becomes

ˆ ˙µ

C βt d

(2.9) e Nµ ptq “ αNµ ptq, µ P p0, 1s,

dt

with the initial condition Nµ p0q “ N0 ą 0, where

ˆ ˙µ ż t ˆ ´βτ ˙´µ

C βt d 1 e ´ e´βt dNµ

(2.10) e Nµ ptq “ dτ ,

dt Γp1 ´ µq 0 β dτ

which, as mentioned above, is a particular case of the Caputo-type fractional derivative

of a function with respect to another function (see e.g. [15] and Appendix A for further

details). It is also worth remarking that this approach has been used to treat a Dodson-

type fractional diffusion equation in [21].

4 LUIGI FRUNZO1 , ROBERTO GARRA2 , ANDREA GIUSTI3 , AND VINCENZO LUONGO4

It is easy to recognize that Eq. (2.9) is an eigenvalue problem for the Caputo-type

fractional operator defined in Eq. (2.10), whose solution is given by

„ ¯µ

α ´ ´βt

(2.11) Nµ ptq “ N0 Eµ µ 1 ´ e .

β

In Appendix A we also provide the solution for a general eigenvalue problem involving a

Caputo-type fractional derivative of a function with respect to another function and we

also explain how the general result applies to the case at hand.

Although for both Eq. (2.6) and Eq. (2.11) the classical Gompertz law is recovered for

µ “ 1, the main features of the two models clearly differ, as it can be seen in Figure 2.

Indeed, in the first case we have the composition of a fastly increasing function with the

slowly decaying one, the latter being the Mittag-Leffler function, whereas in the second

case the situation is reversed. Moreover, these two models are not bounded by the same

carrying capacity. Indeed, we have that

ˆ ˙

α

(2.12) lim Nµ ptq “ N0 Eµ ,

tÑ`8 βµ

while

(2.13) lim Vµ ptq “ lim V1 ptq “ V0 exp pα{βq .

tÑ`8 tÑ`8

This implies that, asymptotically, the model by Bolton et al. has a classical Gompertz

behaviour, while this is not the case for the model introduced in this work. The substantial

difference between these two models is further highlighted by the illuminating plots in

Figure 2.

From a physical perspective, the generalization of the Gompertz law introduced in

Eq. (2.9) has the property of embedding the deterministic time-change (due to the variable

rate) in the definition of the fractional operator. The result of this modification is then

the emergence of memory effects in the population dynamics.

In the following, we present an application of the model presented in Section 2 to three

different biological systems of major interest for environmental engineering. The first

two cases deal with the biological production of gas (biogas) catalysed by two different

fermentation processes. The third application, instead, concerns the growth of a selected

microalgae biomass in non-limiting nutrient conditions.

Over the last decade, many studies on biogas production through anaerobic fermen-

tative systems have been reported, see e.g. [22, 23]. Due to the production of a high

energy content gaseous product, such as hydrogen, accompanied solely by water during

its combustion, Dark Fermentation (DF) is widely regarded as one of the most promising

anaerobic biological process for engineering purposes. This process is usually performed

by multispecies anaerobic consortia, which provide the conversion of organic substrates,

e.g. the organic fraction of municipal solid wastes, in a biologically derived fuel that can

be used to produce energy. The wide range of organic (solid-liquid) waste compounds that

can act as feedstock for the DF has led this process to become one of the key technique

for renewable energy production in both laboratories and pilot scale reactors.

Similar results can be achieved by employing Photofermentative bacteria, such as Rodobac-

ter Sphaeroides (Second application). These species are able to catalyze the conversion of

different organic compounds by using light as a supplementary energy source. In this case,

the organic soluble compounds, which are usually derived from a clarified wastewater, are

MODELLING BIOLOGICAL SYSTEMS WITH AN IMPROVED FRACTIONAL GOMPERTZ LAW 5

sented here (left: A1, A2, A3) and the model by Bolton et al. (2.6) (right:

B1, B2, B3).

(PHB) and the contextual production of hydrogen. PHBs are value-added biochemical

compounds as they can be easily extracted from the bacterial cells and processed to pro-

duce bio-plastic materials. Besides, the hydrogen produced in these process can be used

as a renewable energy source, as it ensure a high energy recovery from organic wastes.

Finally, the third application of the model introduced in Section 2 deals with the de-

scription of the microalgae biomass growth. These unicellular micro-organisms can be used

in the wastewater treatment field for the removal of nutrients, as an alternative treatment

to the traditional, energy demanding, aerobic systems. Microalgae can assimilate a large

amount of inorganic nitrogen and phosphorous in autotrophic conditions by employing

6 LUIGI FRUNZO1 , ROBERTO GARRA2 , ANDREA GIUSTI3 , AND VINCENZO LUONGO4

carbon dioxide as inorganic carbon source and mitigating greenhouse gas emissions with

the contextual production of oxygen. Moreover, these micro-organisms, depending on the

conditions at hand, can shift their metabolism from autotrophic to heterotrophic or, even,

assimilate organic compounds to produce hydrogen. In addition, many microalgae species

are able to accumulate value-added compounds during their growth, usually due to the

high protein content of their cell membrane, which can be easily extracted or used for

biofuel production.

The complete description of the lab-scale procedures adopted for the experimental data

acquisition and the model application have been reported in the following subsections.

3.1. Dark Fermentation experiments. DF experiments have been inoculated with a

pre-treated full-scale anaerobic digestion sludge. The thermal pre-treatment leads to the

inhibition of methanogenic bacteria with consequent hydrogen accumulation during the

fermentation process.

According to [23], the collected sludge was retained in a lab-scale oven for one hour at

105 ˝ C. The anaerobic sludge was characterized in terms of Total Solids (TS), Volatile

Solids (VS) and pH, according to the standard methods [24]. The results showed TS

and VS content and a pH value of 28.75 g{L, 18.90 g{L and 7.7 g{L respectively. The

inoculum, 200 mL, was added into an airtight 1000 mL transparent glass bottle (Simax,

Czech Republic) and 100 mL of a glucose solution (17.71 g{L) was used as substrate. The

final volume of 600 mL was reached by using tap water.

The reactors were connected to an automatic system for data acquisition and contin-

uous pH control through NaOH addition as in [25]. Different pH set-point values in the

range 5.5 ´ 7.0 were adopted in the experiments. The substrate to inoculum ratio F {M

(Food/Microorganisms) was fixed at 1.5 (g COD1 substrate/g VS inoculum).

Each batch bioreactor was immersed into a thermostatic bath at p35 ˘ 1q ˝ C to ensure

mesophilic conditions. This procedure was applied to three different DF reactors and,

before closing the bottles, thirty minutes of nitrogen purge was carried out under anaerobic

1Where COD (Chemical Oxygen Demand) is a laboratory experimental measure of the organic com-

pounds in a solid or liquid matrix.

MODELLING BIOLOGICAL SYSTEMS WITH AN IMPROVED FRACTIONAL GOMPERTZ LAW 7

hood. The plastic cap of each reactor was equipped with sampling tubing. The liquid and

gaseous samples were withdrawn by connecting the plastic cups to a gas measurement

system (eudiometer) and a syringe, respectively.

The total amount of the produced biogas was determined by water displacement. Biogas

was characterized by a Varian Star 3400 gas chromatograph equipped with ShinCarbon

ST 80/100 column and a thermal conductivity detector. Argon was used as carrier gas

with 1.4 bar front and rear end pressure. The Organic Acids (OA) concentrations were

quantified by high pressure liquid chromatography (HPLC) (Dionex LC 25 Chromatogra-

phy Oven) equipped with a Synergi 4u Hydro RP 80A (size 250 ˆ 4.60 mm) column and

UV detector (Dionex AD25 Absorbance Detector).

3.2. Photofermentative experiments. An adapted mixed culture of Purple Non-Sulphur

Bacteria (PNSB) isolated from the Averno Lake (Naples, Italy) and enriched in a lab-scale

reactor under continuous illumination was tested. In particular, the batch experiments

were carried out in triplicate by using 500 mL borosilicate glass bottles GL 45 (Shott Du-

ran, Germany) with a 400 mL working volume. The caps of each reactor were equipped

with thin tubing on the top for sampling and gas extraction as in [26]. The light was

continuously provided through fluorescent lamps which ensure constant illumination of

4000 lx. The stirring conditions were fixed to 300 rpm through IKA RT 5 stirrer stations.

The headspace of the reactors was flushed with argon gas for 20 min to avoid nitroge-

nase inhibition due to high nitrogen content [27]. The Photo Fermentation (PF) reactors

were fed with a synthetic culture medium reproducing the characteristics of a real Dark

Fermentation effluent [28]. The experiments were executed at room temperature (25 ˝ C).

The sampling time for gas and liquid analysis varied from two to five days, depending on

the PNSB growth phase and their activity. Hydrogen production was quantified through

water displacement and gas chromatography by using a 1 L column fulfilled with an acidic

solution (1.5 % HCl) to avoid biogas solubilisation. The hydrogen production was later

calculated by considering the total biogas composition under normal conditions.

3.3. Microalgae Experiments. The experimental set-up was similar to the PF tests.

The Chlorella pyrenoidosa inoculum was provided by the “Algae Biology Laboratory” of

the University of Naples “Federico II” (Italy). All the tests were carried out at room

temperature in batch conditions by using 500 mL borosilicate glass bottles GL 45 (Shott

Duran, Germany), constantly mixed at 200 rpm. Continuous illumination was provided

by using fluorescent lamps (average light intensity of 4000 lx).

A modified Bold’s Basal Medium [29] with nitrate concentration around 180 mgN O3´ {L

was used for microalgae enrichment. Autotrophic growth was stimulated by the addition of

inorganic carbon (N aHCO3 ) until reach the C{N (Carbon/Nitrogen) ratio of 15. Biomass

growth was monitored trough OD 680 and a correlation curve was used to achieve the

specific dry weight trend over time. The liquid samples were collected every two days for

chromatographic analysis.

8 LUIGI FRUNZO1 , ROBERTO GARRA2 , ANDREA GIUSTI3 , AND VINCENZO LUONGO4

3.4. Model validation. The modified Gompertz law proposed in this work has been

applied to the three experimental cases described above. The calibrated parameters used in

numerical simulation are reported in Table 1, whereas a comparison between experimental

data and numerical simulations for each case is reported in Figure 5.

Parameter A B C

α 1.0965 1.5200 2.1350

β 0.180 0.275 0.350

V0 0.020 0.001 0.010

µ 0.64 0.70 0.85

4. Conclusion

In this paper we have introduced a mathematical model that generalizes the well-known

Gompertz law of population dynamics by including fractional features in its constitutive

(ordinary) differential equation. Specifically, this procedure was performed by replacing

the left-hand side in Eq. (2.8) with the Caputo-type derivative of N ptq with respect to

expp´β tq. The resulting model is then governed by a purely fractional differential equation

whose solution of the corresponding initial value problem (2.11) shows that the fractional

nature of the described system is carried along for the whole history of the process. Indeed,

one of the key differences between the behaviour of (2.11) and the model by Bolton et

al (2.6) is that for the latter the contribution of the fractional feature get slowly turned

off at late time, ultimately stabilizing the evolution to an asymptotic value (2.13) which

does not depend on the fractional parameter µ. Whereas, the new growth law featured

in (2.11) is still strongly dependent on the fractionalization procedure as shown in (2.12),

that underlines an enhanced capability of this model to fit a broader class of experimental

behaviours.

MODELLING BIOLOGICAL SYSTEMS WITH AN IMPROVED FRACTIONAL GOMPERTZ LAW 9

A

20

15

H 2 [mol]

10

0

0 5 10 15 20 25 30 35 40

t [day]

B

1.5

1

H 2 [mol]

0.5

0

0 5 10 15 20 25 30

t [day]

C

15

SS [gr L -1]

10

0

0 5 10 15

t [day]

tions for the three experimental cases: (A) Dark Fermentation, (B) Photo

fermentation, (C) Algae.

In order to further strengthen our last remark, we have tested the performance of the

presented model in three very peculiar and distinct frameworks, namely: two experiments

regarding the biogas production catalysed by either DF (Section 3.1) or PF (Section 3.2),

and one experiment featuring microalgae biomass growth (Section 3.3). The results con-

cerning the calibration and numerical simulations are reported in Section 3.4, together

with some illuminating plots, see Figure 5.

function with respect to another function

Fractional derivatives of a function with respect to another function have been part of

the fractional calculus literature at least since the publication of the classical monograph

by Kilbas et al. [30] (see Section 2.5) and appear to have found a new life tanks to some

recent works by Almeida [15].

10 LUIGI FRUNZO1 , ROBERTO GARRA2 , ANDREA GIUSTI3 , AND VINCENZO LUONGO4

In this Appendix, we briefly recall the main definitions and properties of these operators.

Nontheless, this section cannot represent exaustive description of these peculiar operators,

hence we invite the interested reader to refer to [15] for a more complete discussion. We

also observe that this approach has found some interesting applications in [13,16,21,31,32].

Definition 1. Let ν ą 0, I “ pa, bq be an interval such that ´8 ď a ă b ď `8,

gptq P L1 pIq and f ptq P C 1 pIq strictly increasing function for all t P I. Then, the fractional

integral of a function gptq with respect to another function f ptq is given by

żt

ν,f 1

(A.1) Ia` gptq :“ f 1 pτ qrf ptq ´ f pτ qsν´1 gpτ qdτ.

Γpνq a

By inspection one can immediately notice that for f ptq “ tα{β we recover the Erdélyi-

Kober fractional integral (see e.g. [33, 34] for some physical applications), whereas if we

set f ptq “ ln t, this integral can be recasted in the Hadamard fractional integral. Finally,

for f ptq “ t one trivially recovers the Riemann-Liouville fractional integral.

Now, given Definition 1 one can introduce a corresponding regularized left-inverse op-

erator of given by,

Definition 2. Let ν ą 0, n ” rνs, I “ pa, bq be an interval such that ´8 ď a ă b ď `8,

gptq P C n pIq and f ptq P C 1 pIq strictly increasing function for all t P I. Then, the Caputo

derivative of the function gptq with respect to a function f ptq is given by

1 d ν 1 d n

ˆ ˙ ˆ ˙

C n´ν,f

(A.2) gptq :“ Ia` gptq .

f 1 ptq dt f 1 ptq dt

For the latter it is easy to infer that,

Proposition 1. Let ν ą 0, n ” rνs, I “ pa, bq be an interval such that ´8 ď a ă b ď `8

and f ptq P C 1 pIq strictly increasing function for all t P I. If gptq “ rf ptq ´ f pa`qsβ´1 with

β ą 1, then

1 d ν

ˆ ˙

C Γpβq

(A.3) gptq “ rf ptq ´ f pa`qsβ´ν´1 .

f 1 ptq dt Γpβ ´ νq

Proposition 2. Let ν ą 0, n ” rνs, I “ pa, bq be an interval such that ´8 ď a ă b ď `8

and f ptq P C 1 pIq strictly increasing function for all t P I. If gptq “ Eν rλ pf ptq ´ f pa`qqν s

with λ P R, then

1 d ν

ˆ ˙

C

(A.4) gptq “ λ gptq .

f 1 ptq dt

The operator appearing in the generalized Gompertz equation (2.9) is obtained from

the general definition (A.2) by setting a “ 0` and choosing f ptq such that f 1 ptq “ e´βt .

Hence, from 2 we have that the eigenfunction of the operator (2.10) is given by

„

α ´βt

(A.5) Nµ ptq “ Eµ µ p1 ´ e q .

β

Acknowledgments

This work has been carried out in the framework of the activities of the National Group

of Mathematical Physics (GNFM, INdAM). Moreover, the work of L.F. and A.G. is par-

tially supported by GNFM/INdAM Young Researchers Project 2017. Besides, L.F. and

V.L. would also like to acknowledge the support of NSF/DMS 1517100, NIH Award No.

R01GM109452 and the UNINA departmental grant 2015–2016 “Analysis of Complex Bi-

ological Systems”.

MODELLING BIOLOGICAL SYSTEMS WITH AN IMPROVED FRACTIONAL GOMPERTZ LAW 11

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12 LUIGI FRUNZO1 , ROBERTO GARRA2 , ANDREA GIUSTI3 , AND VINCENZO LUONGO4

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1

University of Naples “Federico II”, Department of Mathematics and Applications, via

Claudio 21, 80125, Naples, ITALY.

E-mail address: luigi.frunzo@unina.it

2

Department of Statistical Sciences, Sapienza, University of Rome. P.le Aldo Moro, 5,

Rome, ITALY

E-mail address: roberto.garra@sbai.uniroma1.it

3

Department of Physics & Astronomy, University of Bologna and INFN. Via Irnerio 46,

Bologna, ITALY and Arnold Sommerfeld Center, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, There-

sienstraße 37, 80333 München, GERMANY.

E-mail address: andrea.giusti@bo.infn.it

4

University of Naples “Federico II”, Department of Mathematics and Applications, via

Claudio 21, 80125, Naples, ITALY.

E-mail address: vincenzo.luongo@unina.it

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