Phase separation provides a mechanism to reduce noise in cells

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Science  24 Jan 2020:
Vol. 367, Issue 6476, pp. 464-468
DOI: 10.1126/science.aav6691

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Keeping the noise down

Protein concentrations in a cell fluctuate considerably because of stochasticity in gene expression and variations in the cell's microenvironment. How cells cope with concentration fluctuations when precision is important is unclear. Klosin et al. used a combination of theoretical and experimental work to demonstrate that phase-separated compartments can effectively reduce protein concentration noise in cells (see the Perspective by Riback and Brangwynne). The results suggest that phase separation provides a mechanism to enhance the robustness of biological systems.

Science, this issue p. 464; see also p. 364


Expression of proteins inside cells is noisy, causing variability in protein concentration among identical cells. A central problem in cellular control is how cells cope with this inherent noise. Compartmentalization of proteins through phase separation has been suggested as a potential mechanism to reduce noise, but systematic studies to support this idea have been missing. In this study, we used a physical model that links noise in protein concentration to theory of phase separation to show that liquid droplets can effectively reduce noise. We provide experimental support for noise reduction by phase separation using engineered proteins that form liquid-like compartments in mammalian cells. Thus, phase separation can play an important role in biological signal processing and control.

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