It Pays To Be in Phase

Biochemistry. 2018 May 1;57(17):2520-2529. doi: 10.1021/acs.biochem.8b00205. Epub 2018 Mar 13.


To survive, organisms must orchestrate competing biochemical and regulatory processes in time and space. Recent work has suggested that the underlying chemical properties of some biomolecules allow them to self-organize and that life may have exploited this property to organize biochemistry in space and time. Such phase separation is ubiquitous, particularly among the many regulatory proteins that harbor prion-like intrinsically disordered domains. And yet, despite evident regulation by post-translational modification and myriad other stimuli, the biological significance of many phase-separated compartments remains uncertain. Many potential functions have been proposed, but far fewer have been demonstrated. A burgeoning subfield at the intersection of cell biology and polymer physics has defined the biophysical underpinnings that govern the genesis and stability of these particles. The picture is complex: many assemblies are composed of multiple proteins that each have the capacity to phase separate. Here, we briefly discuss this foundational work and survey recent efforts combining targeted biochemical perturbations and quantitative modeling to specifically address the diverse roles that phase separation processes may play in biology.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cell Compartmentation / genetics*
  • Intrinsically Disordered Proteins / chemistry*
  • Intrinsically Disordered Proteins / genetics
  • Macromolecular Substances / chemistry*
  • Phase Transition
  • Protein Processing, Post-Translational / genetics*


  • Intrinsically Disordered Proteins
  • Macromolecular Substances