Molecular details of protein condensates probed by microsecond long atomistic simulations

Wenwei Zheng, Gregory L. Dignon, Nina Jovic, Xichen Xu, Roshan M. Regy, Nicolas L. Fawzi, Young C. Kim, Robert B. Best, Jeetain Mittal

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

68 Scopus citations


The formation of membraneless organelles in cells commonly occurs via liquid-liquid phase separation (LLPS) and is in many cases driven by multivalent interactions between intrinsically disordered proteins (IDPs). Investigating the nature of these interactions, and their effect on dynamics within the condensed phase, is therefore of critical importance but very challenging for either simulation or experiment. Here, we study these interactions and their dynamics by pairing a novel multiscale simulation strategy with microsecond all-atom MD simulations of a condensed, IDP-rich phase. We simulate two IDPs this way the low complexity domain of FUS and, the N-terminal disordered domain of LAF-1, and find good agreement with experimental information about average density, water content, and residue-residue contacts. We go significantly beyond what is known from experiments by showing that ion partitioning within the condensed phase is largely driven by the charge distribution of the proteins and-in the cases considered-shows little evidence of preferential interactions of the ions with the proteins. Furthermore, we can probe the microscopic diffusive dynamics within the condensed phase, showing that water and ions are in dynamic equilibrium between dense and dilute phases, and their diffusion is reduced in the dense phase. Despite their high concentration in the condensate, the protein molecules also remain mobile, explaining the observed liquid-like properties of this phase. We finally show that IDP self-association is driven by a combination of nonspecific hydrophobic interactions as well as hydrogen bonds, salt bridges, and π-π and cation-π interactions. The simulation approach presented here allows the structural and dynamical properties of biomolecular condensates to be studied in microscopic detail and is generally applicable to single- and multicomponent systems of proteins and nucleic acids involved in LLPS.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)11671-11679
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Physical Chemistry B
Issue number51
StatePublished - Dec 24 2020

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physical and Theoretical Chemistry
  • Surfaces, Coatings and Films
  • Materials Chemistry


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