Zinc promotes liquid-liquid phase separation of tau protein

J Biol Chem. 2020 May 1;295(18):5850-5856. doi: 10.1074/jbc.AC120.013166. Epub 2020 Mar 30.


Tau is a microtubule-associated protein that plays a major role in Alzheimer's disease (AD) and other tauopathies. Recent reports indicate that, in the presence of crowding agents, tau can undergo liquid-liquid phase separation (LLPS), forming highly dynamic liquid droplets. Here, using recombinantly expressed proteins, turbidimetry, fluorescence microscopy imaging, and fluorescence recovery after photobleaching (FRAP) assays, we show that the divalent transition metal zinc strongly promotes this process, shifting the equilibrium phase boundary to lower protein or crowding agent concentrations. We observed no tau LLPS-promoting effect for any other divalent transition metal ions tested, including Mn2+, Fe2+, Co2+, Ni2+, and Cu2+ We also demonstrate that multiple zinc-binding sites on tau are involved in the LLPS-promoting effect and provide insights into the mechanism of this process. Zinc concentration is highly elevated in AD brains, and this metal ion is believed to be an important player in the pathogenesis of this disease. Thus, the present findings bring a new dimension to understanding the relationship between zinc homeostasis and the pathogenic process in AD and related neurodegenerative disorders.

Keywords: Alzheimer disease; amyloid; amyloid plaques; divalent transition metal; liquid-liquid phase separation; metal homeostasis; neurodegeneration; tau protein (tau); tauopathy; zinc.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Alzheimer Disease / metabolism
  • Brain / metabolism
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Drug
  • Humans
  • Zinc / pharmacology*
  • tau Proteins / chemistry*
  • tau Proteins / metabolism


  • tau Proteins
  • Zinc