Invited review: Caseins and the casein micelle: their biological functions, structures, and behavior in foods

J Dairy Sci. 2013 Oct;96(10):6127-46. doi: 10.3168/jds.2013-6831. Epub 2013 Aug 16.


A typical casein micelle contains thousands of casein molecules, most of which form thermodynamically stable complexes with nanoclusters of amorphous calcium phosphate. Like many other unfolded proteins, caseins have an actual or potential tendency to assemble into toxic amyloid fibrils, particularly at the high concentrations found in milk. Fibrils do not form in milk because an alternative aggregation pathway is followed that results in formation of the casein micelle. As a result of forming micelles, nutritious milk can be secreted and stored without causing either pathological calcification or amyloidosis of the mother's mammary tissue. The ability to sequester nanoclusters of amorphous calcium phosphate in a stable complex is not unique to caseins. It has been demonstrated using a number of noncasein secreted phosphoproteins and may be of general physiological importance in preventing calcification of other biofluids and soft tissues. Thus, competent noncasein phosphoproteins have similar patterns of phosphorylation and the same type of flexible, unfolded conformation as caseins. The ability to suppress amyloid fibril formation by forming an alternative amorphous aggregate is also not unique to caseins and underlies the action of molecular chaperones such as the small heat-shock proteins. The open structure of the protein matrix of casein micelles is fragile and easily perturbed by changes in its environment. Perturbations can cause the polypeptide chains to segregate into regions of greater and lesser density. As a result, the reliable determination of the native structure of casein micelles continues to be extremely challenging. The biological functions of caseins, such as their chaperone activity, are determined by their composition and flexible conformation and by how the casein polypeptide chains interact with each other. These same properties determine how caseins behave in the manufacture of many dairy products and how they can be used as functional ingredients in other foods.

Keywords: amyloid fibril; calcium phosphate sequestration; molecular chaperone; unfolded protein.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Amyloid / chemistry
  • Amyloid / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Calcium Phosphates / metabolism
  • Caseins / chemistry*
  • Caseins / metabolism*
  • Chaperonins / chemistry
  • Chaperonins / metabolism
  • Dairy Products
  • Hydrophobic and Hydrophilic Interactions
  • Micelles*
  • Milk / chemistry*
  • Protein Conformation
  • Protein Folding


  • Amyloid
  • Calcium Phosphates
  • Caseins
  • Micelles
  • amorphous calcium phosphate
  • Chaperonins