Park, Sohee, Ryan Barnes, Yanxian Lin, Byoung-jin Jeon, Saeed Najafi, Kris T. Delaney, Glenn H. Fredrickson, Joan-Emma Shea, Dong Soo Hwang, and Songi Han. “Dehydration Entropy Drives Liquid-Liquid Phase Separation by Molecular Crowding.” Communications Chemistry 3, no. 1 (December 2020): 83.
Complex coacervation driven liquid-liquid phase separation (LLPS) of biopolymers has been attracting attention as a novel phase in living cells. Studies of LLPS in this context are typically of proteins harboring chemical and structural complexity, leaving unclear which properties are fundamental to complex coacervation versus protein-specific. This study focuses on the role of polyethylene glycol (PEG)—a widely used molecular crowder—in LLPS. Significantly, entropy-driven LLPS is recapitulated with charged polymers lacking hydrophobicity and sequence complexity, and its propensity dramatically enhanced by PEG. Experimental and field-theoretic simulation results are consistent with PEG driving LLPS by dehydration of polymers, and show that PEG exerts its effect without partitioning into the dense coacervate phase. It is then up to biology to impose additional variations of functional significance to the LLPS of biological systems.