The discovery, which was made during the 2008 Physiology course at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), is reported in the May 21 early online edition of Science by Clifford P. Brangwynne and Anthony A. Hyman of the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, Germany, and their colleagues, including Frank Jülicher of the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems, also in Dresden.
Working with the worm C. elegans, the scientists found that subcellular structures called P granules, which are thought to specify the "germ cells" that ultimately give rise to sperm or eggs, are liquid droplets that transition between a dissolved or condensed state. In newly fertilized one-cell embryos, the P granules are dissolving throughout the cell, like water droplets at high temperature. But prior to the first cell division, the P granules rapidly condense at one end of the cell, as if the temperature were suddenly lowered there. The progenitor germ cell subsequently forms where the P granules have condensed.
"This kind of phase transition could potentially be working for many other subcellular structures similar to P granules," Brangwynne says. P granules are ribonucleoprotein assemblies (RNPs), and a given cell may contain dozens of different types of RNPs.
"It is interesting to think about this in the context of evolution and the origin of life," he says. "What we have found is that, in some cases, simple physical-chemical mechanisms, such as a classic phase transition, give rise to subcellular structure…This is likely the kind of thing that happened in the so-called primordial soup; but it's not surprising that even highly evolved cells continue to take advantage of such mechanisms."
The insight emerged when Brangwynne, a biophysicist who was a teaching assistant in the MBL Physiology course, watched a movie of P granules fusing that had been made by a student in the course, David Courson of the University of Chicago. "We were looking at that and thinking, man, that looks exactly like two liquid droplets fusing," Brangwynne says. They began making measurements of liquid-type behaviors in P granules, and made the first estimates of P granule viscosity and surface tension. By the end of the course they were "90 percent sure" that P granules are liquid droplets that localize in the cell by controlled dissolution and condensation, a concept that Brangwynne further confirmed after he returned to Dresden.
Brangwynne credits the discovery to the "dynamic nature" of the MBL Physiology course, where scientists from different fields (biology, physics, computer science) work intensively together on major research questions in cell biology. In addition to Courson, the other co-authors of the Science paper who were in the Physiology course are Hyman, and Jülicher, who were Physiology faculty members, and Jöbin Gharakhani, who was a teaching assistant. The paper also credits Physiology course co-director Tim Mitchison for valuable discussions.
"There are so many molecules in the cell, and we are coming out of the age of cataloguing them all, which was critical, to find out who the players are," Brangwynne says. "Now we are putting it all together. What are the principles that come out of these complex interactions (between molecules)? In the end, it may be relatively simple principles that help us understand what is really happening."
Brangwynne, C.P., Eckmann, C.R., Courson, D.S., Rybarska, A., Hoege, C., Gharakhani, J., Jülicher, F., and Hyman, A.A. (2009) Germline P Granules are Liquid Droplets that Localize by Controlled Dissolution/Condensation. Early publication online by the journal Science, at the Science Express web site: http://www.sciencexpress.org.
The MBL is a leading international, independent, nonprofit institution dedicated to discovery and to improving the human condition through creative research and education in the biological, biomedical and environmental sciences. Founded in 1888 as the Marine Biological Laboratory, the MBL is the oldest private marine laboratory in the Americas.
Diana Kenney | EurekAlert!
Scientists spin artificial silk from whey protein
24.01.2017 | Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron DESY
Choreographing the microRNA-target dance
24.01.2017 | UT Southwestern Medical Center
A Swedish-German team of researchers has cleared up a key process for the artificial production of silk. With the help of the intense X-rays from DESY's...
For the first time ever, a cloud of ultra-cold atoms has been successfully created in space on board of a sounding rocket. The MAIUS mission demonstrates that quantum optical sensors can be operated even in harsh environments like space – a prerequi-site for finding answers to the most challenging questions of fundamental physics and an important innovation driver for everyday applications.
According to Albert Einstein's Equivalence Principle, all bodies are accelerated at the same rate by the Earth's gravity, regardless of their properties. This...
An important step towards a completely new experimental access to quantum physics has been made at University of Konstanz. The team of scientists headed by...
Yersiniae cause severe intestinal infections. Studies using Yersinia pseudotuberculosis as a model organism aim to elucidate the infection mechanisms of these...
Researchers from the University of Hamburg in Germany, in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Aarhus in Denmark, have synthesized a new superconducting material by growing a few layers of an antiferromagnetic transition-metal chalcogenide on a bismuth-based topological insulator, both being non-superconducting materials.
While superconductivity and magnetism are generally believed to be mutually exclusive, surprisingly, in this new material, superconducting correlations...
19.01.2017 | Event News
10.01.2017 | Event News
09.01.2017 | Event News
24.01.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
24.01.2017 | Life Sciences
24.01.2017 | Health and Medicine