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Nucleated transcriptional condensates amplify gene expression.
Membraneless organelles or condensates form through liquid-liquid phase separation1-4, which is thought to underlie gene transcription through condensation of the large-scale nucleolus5-7 or in smaller assemblies known as transcriptional condensates8-11. Transcriptional condensates have been hypothesized to phase separate at particular genomic loci and locally promote the biomolecular interactions underlying gene expression. However, there have been few quantitative biophysical tests of this model in living cells, and phase separation has not yet been directly linked with dynamic transcriptional outputs12,13. Here, we apply an optogenetic approach to show that FET-family transcriptional regulators exhibit a strong tendency to phase separate within living cells, a process that can drive localized RNA transcription. We find that TAF15 has a unique charge distribution among the FET family members that enhances its interactions with the C-terminal domain of RNA polymerase II. Nascent C-terminal domain clusters at primed genomic loci lower the energetic barrier for nucleation of TAF15 condensates, which in turn further recruit RNA polymerase II to drive transcriptional output. These results suggest that positive feedback between interacting transcriptional components drives localized phase separation to amplify gene expression.
Composition dependent phase separation underlies directional flux through the nucleolus.
Intracellular bodies such as nucleoli, Cajal bodies, and various signaling assemblies, represent membraneless organelles, or condensates, that form via liquid-liquid phase separation (LLPS)1,2. Biomolecular interactions, particularly homotypic interactions mediated by self-associating intrinsically disordered protein regions (IDRs), are thought to underlie the thermodynamic driving forces for LLPS, forming condensates that can facilitate the assembly and processing of biochemically active complexes, such as ribosomal subunits within the nucleolus. Simplified model systems3–6 have led to the concept that a single fixed saturation concentration (Csat) is a defining feature of endogenous LLPS7–9, and has been suggested as a mechanism for intracellular concentration buffering2,7,8,10. However, the assumption of a fixed Csat remains largely untested within living cells, where the richly multicomponent nature of condensates could complicate this simple picture. Here we show that heterotypic multicomponent interactions dominate endogenous LLPS, and give rise to nucleoli and other condensates that do not exhibit a fixed Csat. As the concentration of individual components is varied, their partition coefficients change, in a manner that can be used to extract thermodynamic interaction energies, that we interpret within a framework we term polyphasic interaction thermodynamic analysis (PITA). We find that heterotypic interactions between protein and RNA components stabilize a variety of archetypal intracellular condensates, including the nucleolus, Cajal bodies, stress granules, and P bodies. These findings imply that the composition of condensates is finely tuned by the thermodynamics of the underlying biomolecular interaction network. In the context of RNA processing condensates such as the nucleolus, this stoichiometric self-tuning manifests in selective exclusion of fully-assembled RNP complexes, providing a thermodynamic basis for vectorial ribosomal RNA (rRNA) flux out of the nucleolus. The PITA methodology is conceptually straightforward and readily implemented, and it can be broadly utilized to extract thermodynamic parameters from microscopy images. These approaches pave the way for a deep understanding of the thermodynamics of multi-component intracellular phase behavior and its interplay with nonequilibrium activity characteristic of endogenous condensates.
Controlling the material properties and rRNA processing function of the nucleolus using light.
The nucleolus is a prominent nuclear condensate that plays a central role in ribosome biogenesis by facilitating the transcription and processing of nascent ribosomal RNA (rRNA). A number of studies have highlighted the active viscoelastic nature of the nucleolus, whose material properties and phase behavior are a consequence of underlying molecular interactions. However, the ways in which the material properties of the nucleolus impact its function in rRNA biogenesis are not understood. Here we utilize the Cry2olig optogenetic system to modulate the viscoelastic properties of the nucleolus. We show that above a threshold concentration of Cry2olig protein, the nucleolus can be gelled into a tightly linked, low mobility meshwork. Gelled nucleoli no longer coalesce and relax into spheres but nonetheless permit continued internal molecular mobility of small proteins. These changes in nucleolar material properties manifest in specific alterations in rRNA processing steps, including a buildup of larger rRNA precursors and a depletion of smaller rRNA precursors. We propose that the flux of processed rRNA may be actively tuned by the cell through modulating nucleolar material properties, which suggests the potential of materials-based approaches for therapeutic intervention in ribosomopathies.
Mapping Local and Global Liquid Phase Behavior in Living Cells Using Photo-Oligomerizable Seeds.
Liquid-liquid phase separation plays a key role in the
assembly of diverse intracellular structures. However,
the biophysical principles by which phase separation
can be precisely localized within subregions
of the cell are still largely unclear, particularly for
low-abundance proteins. Here, we introduce an oligomerizing
biomimetic system, ‘‘Corelets,’’ and utilize
its rapid and quantitative light-controlled
tunability to map full intracellular phase diagrams,
which dictate the concentrations at which phase
separation occurs and the transition mechanism, in
a protein sequence dependent manner. Surprisingly,
both experiments and simulations show that while
intracellular concentrations may be insufficient for
global phase separation, sequestering protein ligands
to slowly diffusing nucleation centers can
move the cell into a different region of the phase diagram,
resulting in localized phase separation. This
diffusive capture mechanism liberates the cell from
the constraints of global protein abundance and is
likely exploited to pattern condensates associated
with diverse biological processes.