Pleomorphic ensembles: formation of large clusters composed of weakly interacting multivalent molecules

Biophys J. 2013 Dec 3;105(11):2451-60. doi: 10.1016/j.bpj.2013.10.016.


Molecular interactions of importance to cell biology are subject to sol-gel transitions: large clusters of weakly interacting multivalent molecules (gel phase) are produced at a critical concentration of monomers. Examples include cell-cell and cell-matrix adhesions, nucleoprotein bodies, and cell signaling platforms. We use the term pleomorphic ensembles (PEs) to describe these clusters, because they have dynamic compositions and sizes and have rapid turnover of their molecular constituents; this plasticity can be highly responsive to cellular signals. The classical polymer physical chemistry theory developed by Flory and Stockmayer provides a brilliant framework for treating multivalent interactions for simple idealized systems. But the complexity and variability of PEs challenges existing modeling approaches. Here we describe and validate a computational algorithm that extends the Flory-Stockmayer formalism to overcome the limitations of analytic theories. We divide the problem by deterministically calculating the fraction of bound sites for each type of binding site, followed by the stochastic assignment of the bonds to a finite number of molecules. The method allows for high valency within many different kinds of interacting molecules and site types, permits simulation of steady-state distributions, as well as assembly kinetics, and can treat cooperative binding within one of the interacting molecules. We then apply our method to the analysis of interactions in the nephrin-Nck-N-Wasp signaling system, demonstrating how multivalent layered scaffolds produce PEs at low monomer concentrations despite weak binding interactions. We show how the experimental data for this system are most consistent with synergistic cooperative interactions between Nck and N-Wasp.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adaptor Proteins, Signal Transducing / chemistry*
  • Adaptor Proteins, Signal Transducing / metabolism
  • Algorithms*
  • Animals
  • Biopolymers / chemistry
  • Gels / chemistry
  • Humans
  • Kinetics
  • Membrane Proteins / chemistry*
  • Membrane Proteins / metabolism
  • Models, Biological*
  • Oncogene Proteins / chemistry*
  • Oncogene Proteins / metabolism
  • Protein Binding
  • Wiskott-Aldrich Syndrome Protein Family / chemistry*
  • Wiskott-Aldrich Syndrome Protein Family / metabolism


  • Adaptor Proteins, Signal Transducing
  • Biopolymers
  • Gels
  • Membrane Proteins
  • Nck protein
  • Oncogene Proteins
  • Wiskott-Aldrich Syndrome Protein Family
  • nephrin