Biological phase separation: cell biology meets biophysics

Biophys Rev. 2020 Apr;12(2):519-539. doi: 10.1007/s12551-020-00680-x. Epub 2020 Mar 18.


Progress in development of biophysical analytic approaches has recently crossed paths with macromolecule condensates in cells. These cell condensates, typically termed liquid-like droplets, are formed by liquid-liquid phase separation (LLPS). More and more cell biologists now recognize that many of the membrane-less organelles observed in cells are formed by LLPS caused by interactions between proteins and nucleic acids. However, the detailed biophysical processes within the cell that lead to these assemblies remain largely unexplored. In this review, we evaluate recent discoveries related to biological phase separation including stress granule formation, chromatin regulation, and processes in the origin and evolution of life. We also discuss the potential issues and technical advancements required to properly study biological phase separation.

Keywords: Intrinsically disordered region/protein (IDR/IDP); Liquid-liquid phase separation (LLPS); Low-complexity (LC) domain; Membrane-less organelle.

Publication types

  • Review