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mRNA structure determines specificity of a polyQ-driven phase separation

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Science  25 May 2018:
Vol. 360, Issue 6391, pp. 922-927
DOI: 10.1126/science.aar7432

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RNA and membraneless organelles

Membraneless compartments can form in cells through liquidliquid phase separation (see the Perspective by Polymenidou). But what prevents these cellular condensates from randomly fusing together? Using the RNA-binding protein (RBP) Whi3, Langdon et al. demonstrated that the secondary structure of different RNA components determines the distinct biophysical and biological properties of the two types of condensates that Whi3 forms. Several RBPs, such as FUS and TDP43, contain prion-like domains and are linked to neurodegenerative diseases. These RBPs are usually soluble in the nucleus but can form pathological aggregates in the cytoplasm. Maharana et al. showed that local RNA concentrations determine distinct phase separation behaviors in different subcellular locations. The higher RNA concentrations in the nucleus act as a buffer to prevent phase separation of RBPs; when mislocalized to the cytoplasm, lower RNA concentrations trigger aggregation.

Science, this issue p. 922, p. 918; see also p. 859

Abstract

RNA promotes liquid-liquid phase separation (LLPS) to build membraneless compartments in cells. How distinct molecular compositions are established and maintained in these liquid compartments is unknown. Here, we report that secondary structure allows messenger RNAs (mRNAs) to self-associate and determines whether an mRNA is recruited to or excluded from liquid compartments. The polyQ-protein Whi3 induces conformational changes in RNA structure and generates distinct molecular fluctuations depending on the RNA sequence. These data support a model in which structure-based, RNA-RNA interactions promote assembly of distinct droplets and protein-driven, conformational dynamics of the RNA maintain this identity. Thus, the shape of RNA can promote the formation and coexistence of the diverse array of RNA-rich liquid compartments found in a single cell.

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