Anomalous diffusion of proteins due to molecular crowding

Biophys J. 2005 Nov;89(5):2960-71. doi: 10.1529/biophysj.104.051078. Epub 2005 Aug 19.


We have studied the diffusion of tracer proteins in highly concentrated random-coil polymer and globular protein solutions imitating the crowded conditions encountered in cellular environments. Using fluorescence correlation spectroscopy, we measured the anomalous diffusion exponent alpha characterizing the dependence of the mean-square displacement of the tracer proteins on time, r(2)(t) approximately t(alpha). We observed that the diffusion of proteins in dextran solutions with concentrations up to 400 g/l is subdiffusive (alpha < 1) even at low obstacle concentration. The anomalous diffusion exponent alpha decreases continuously with increasing obstacle concentration and molecular weight, but does not depend on buffer ionic strength, and neither does it depend strongly on solution temperature. At very high random-coil polymer concentrations, alpha reaches a limit value of alpha(l) approximately 3/4, which we take to be the signature of a coupling between the motions of the tracer proteins and the segments of the dextran chains. A similar, although less pronounced, subdiffusive behavior is observed for the diffusion of streptavidin in concentrated globular protein solutions. These observations indicate that protein diffusion in the cell cytoplasm and nucleus should be anomalous as well, with consequences for measurements of solute diffusion coefficients in cells and for the modeling of cellular processes relying on diffusion.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Biophysics / methods
  • Buffers
  • Dextrans / chemistry
  • Diffusion
  • Fluorescent Dyes / pharmacology
  • Ions
  • Macromolecular Substances
  • Models, Biological
  • Models, Chemical
  • Models, Statistical
  • Monte Carlo Method
  • Proteins / chemistry*
  • Spectrometry, Fluorescence / methods*
  • Temperature
  • Time Factors


  • Buffers
  • Dextrans
  • Fluorescent Dyes
  • Ions
  • Macromolecular Substances
  • Proteins