Biological networks have long been known to be modular, containing sets of nodes that are highly connected internally. Less emphasis, however, has been placed on understanding how intermodule connections are distributed within a network. Here, we borrow ideas from engineered circuit design and study Rentian scaling, which states that the number of external connections between nodes in different modules is related to the number of nodes inside the modules by a power-law relationship. We tested this property in a broad class of molecular networks, including protein interaction networks for six species and gene regulatory networks for 41 human and 25 mouse cell types. Using evolutionarily defined modules corresponding to known biological processes in the cell, we found that all networks displayed Rentian scaling with a broad range of exponents. We also found evidence for Rentian scaling in functional modules in the Caenorhabditis elegans neural network, but, interestingly, not in three different social networks, suggesting that this property does not inevitably emerge. To understand how such scaling may have arisen evolutionarily, we derived a new graph model that can generate Rentian networks given a target Rent exponent and a module decomposition as inputs. Overall, our work uncovers a new principle shared by engineered circuits and biological networks.

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