Divalent cations can control a switch-like behavior in heterotypic and homotypic RNA coacervates

Sci Rep. 2019 Aug 21;9(1):12161. doi: 10.1038/s41598-019-48457-x.


Liquid-liquid phase separation (LLPS) of RNA-protein complexes plays a major role in the cellular function of membraneless organelles (MLOs). MLOs are sensitive to changes in cellular conditions, such as fluctuations in cytoplasmic ion concentrations. To investigate the effect of these changes on MLOs, we studied the influence of divalent cations on the physical and chemical properties of RNA coacervates. Using a model system comprised of an arginine-rich peptide and RNA, we predicted and observed that variations in signaling cations exert interaction-dependent effects on RNA LLPS. Changing the ionic environment has opposing effects on the propensity for heterotypic peptide-RNA and homotypic RNA LLPS, which results in a switch between coacervate types. Furthermore, divalent ion variations continuously tune the microenvironments and fluid properties of heterotypic and homotypic droplets. Our results may provide a general mechanism for modulating the biochemical environment of RNA coacervates in a cellular context.

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.

MeSH terms

  • Amino Acid Sequence
  • Arginine / chemistry
  • Cations, Divalent / chemistry
  • Fluorescence Recovery After Photobleaching
  • Magnesium / chemistry
  • Microscopy, Fluorescence
  • Nephelometry and Turbidimetry
  • Peptides / chemistry
  • Peptides / metabolism*
  • Poly U / chemistry
  • Poly U / metabolism
  • Protein Binding
  • RNA / chemistry
  • RNA / metabolism*


  • Cations, Divalent
  • Peptides
  • Poly U
  • RNA
  • Arginine
  • Magnesium