Non-specific adhesive forces between filaments and membraneless organelles

Nat Phys. 2022;18(5):571-578. doi: 10.1038/s41567-022-01537-8. Epub 2022 Mar 24.


Many membraneless organelles are liquid-like domains that form inside the active, viscoelastic environment of living cells through phase separation. To investigate the potential coupling of phase separation with the cytoskeleton, we quantify the structural correlations of membraneless organelles (stress granules) and cytoskeletal filaments (microtubules) in a human-derived epithelial cell line. We find that microtubule networks are substantially denser in the vicinity of stress granules. When microtubules are depolymerized, the sub-units localize near the surface of the stress granules. We interpret these data using a thermodynamic model of partitioning of particles to the surface and bulk of the droplets. In this framework, our data are consistent with a weak (≲k B T) affinity of the microtubule sub-units for stress granule interfaces. As microtubules polymerize, their interfacial affinity increases, providing sufficient adhesion to deform droplets and/or the network. Our work suggests that proteins and other objects in the cell have a non-specific affinity for droplet interfaces that increases with the contact area and becomes most apparent when they have no preference for the interior of a droplet over the rest of the cytoplasm. We validate this basic physical phenomenon in vitro through the interaction of a simple protein-RNA condensate with microtubules.

Keywords: Biopolymers in vivo; Colloids; Nanoscale biophysics; Polymers; Wetting.