Modulating α-Synuclein Liquid-Liquid Phase Separation

Biochemistry. 2021 Dec 7;60(48):3676-3696. doi: 10.1021/acs.biochem.1c00434. Epub 2021 Aug 25.


Liquid-liquid phase separation (LLPS) is a crucial phenomenon for the formation of functional membraneless organelles. However, LLPS is also responsible for protein aggregation in various neurodegenerative diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Alzheimer's disease, and Parkinson's disease (PD). Recently, several reports, including ours, have shown that α-synuclein (α-Syn) undergoes LLPS and a subsequent liquid-to-solid phase transition, which leads to amyloid fibril formation. However, how the environmental (and experimental) parameters modulate the α-Syn LLPS remains elusive. Here, we show that in vitro α-Syn LLPS is strongly dependent on the presence of salts, which allows charge neutralization at both terminal segments of protein and therefore promotes hydrophobic interactions supportive for LLPS. Using various purification methods and experimental conditions, we showed, depending upon conditions, α-Syn undergoes either spontaneous (instantaneous) or delayed LLPS. Furthermore, we delineate that the kinetics of liquid droplet formation (i.e., the critical concentration and critical time) is relative and can be modulated by the salt/counterion concentration, pH, presence of surface, PD-associated multivalent cations, and N-terminal acetylation, which are all known to regulate α-Syn aggregation in vitro. Together, our observations suggest that α-Syn LLPS and subsequent liquid-to-solid phase transition could be pathological, which can be triggered only under disease-associated conditions (high critical concentration and/or conditions promoting α-Syn self-assembly). This study will significantly improve our understanding of the molecular mechanisms of α-Syn LLPS and the liquid-to-solid transition.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Alzheimer Disease / genetics
  • Alzheimer Disease / pathology
  • Amyloid / chemistry*
  • Amyloid / genetics
  • Amyloid / ultrastructure
  • Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis / genetics
  • Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis / pathology
  • Humans
  • Hydrophobic and Hydrophilic Interactions
  • Kinetics
  • Parkinson Disease / genetics
  • Parkinson Disease / pathology
  • Phase Transition
  • Protein Aggregation, Pathological / genetics*
  • Protein Aggregation, Pathological / pathology
  • alpha-Synuclein / chemistry*
  • alpha-Synuclein / genetics
  • alpha-Synuclein / ultrastructure


  • Amyloid
  • SNCA protein, human
  • alpha-Synuclein