Cellular sensing by phase separation: Using the process, not just the products

J Biol Chem. 2019 May 3;294(18):7151-7159. doi: 10.1074/jbc.TM118.001191. Epub 2019 Mar 15.


Phase separation creates two distinct liquid phases from a single mixed liquid phase, like oil droplets separating from water. Considerable attention has focused on how the products of phase separation-the resulting condensates-might act as biological compartments, bioreactors, filters, and membraneless organelles in cells. Here, we expand this perspective, reviewing recent results showing how cells instead use the process of phase separation to sense intracellular and extracellular changes. We review case studies in phase separation-based sensing and discuss key features, such as extraordinary sensitivity, which make the process of phase separation ideally suited to meet a range of sensory challenges cells encounter.

Keywords: Sup35; biophysics; biosensor; cell biology; cellular regulation; cyclic GMP-AMP synthase; phase separation; phase transition; poly(A)-binding protein; stress response.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cell Compartmentation
  • Cytoplasm / metabolism
  • Organelles / metabolism*
  • Phase Transition*