Local thermodynamics govern formation and dissolution of Caenorhabditis elegans P granule condensates

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2021 Sep 14;118(37):e2102772118. doi: 10.1073/pnas.2102772118.


Membraneless compartments, also known as condensates, provide chemically distinct environments and thus spatially organize the cell. A well-studied example of condensates is P granules in the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans that play an important role in the development of the germline. P granules are RNA-rich protein condensates that share the key properties of liquid droplets such as a spherical shape, the ability to fuse, and fast diffusion of their molecular components. An outstanding question is to what extent phase separation at thermodynamic equilibrium is appropriate to describe the formation of condensates in an active cellular environment. To address this question, we investigate the response of P granule condensates in living cells to temperature changes. We observe that P granules dissolve upon increasing the temperature and recondense upon lowering the temperature in a reversible manner. Strikingly, this temperature response can be captured by in vivo phase diagrams that are well described by a Flory-Huggins model at thermodynamic equilibrium. This finding is surprising due to active processes in a living cell. To address the impact of such active processes on intracellular phase separation, we discuss temperature heterogeneities. We show that, for typical estimates of the density of active processes, temperature represents a well-defined variable and that mesoscopic volume elements are at local thermodynamic equilibrium. Our findings provide strong evidence that P granule assembly and disassembly are governed by phase separation based on local thermal equilibria where the nonequilibrium nature of the cytoplasm is manifested on larger scales.

Keywords: P granules; in vivo phase diagram; phase separation; temperature.