For the first time, scientists have demonstrated a simple charge-based mechanism for regulating the formation and dissolution of liquid-like structures inside cells. The research provides a first step in deciphering how these poorly-understood structures, which lack outer membranes, function in the cell -- and how they may have evolved. A paper describing the research by Penn State scientists will appear on Dec. 21 as an advance online publication of the journal Nature Chemistry.
"Cells contain many of these liquid-like structures that are in some ways conceptually similar to droplets of oil in water," said Christine Keating, professor of chemistry at Penn State. "The structures, which we call liquid organelles, often appear and disappear inside cells. We were able to replicate this process in a biologically-reasonable way in the lab by controlling the electrostatic charge of the molecules that form our synthetic liquid organelles. We used tools that the cell itself might use, giving us the first clues about how the process may occur in nature."