Viewing protein condensate formation

Many diseases affecting the brain and nervous system are linked to the formation of protein aggregates, or solid condensates, in cells from their liquid form condensate, but little is known about this process.

This liquid-to-solid transition can trigger the formation of what are called amyloid fibrils. These can further form plaques in neurons causing neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's.

Biomedical engineers have now developed sophisticated optical techniques to monitor at close range the process by which these protein aggregates form.

By testing a protein associated with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis – ALS disease, which affected astrophysicist Professor Stephen Hawking – the engineers closely monitored the transition of this protein from its liquid to solid phase.

“This is a huge step forward to understanding how neurogenerative diseases develop from a fundamental perspective,” said the lead author of the research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in the United States.

“We can now directly observe the transition of these critical proteins from liquid to solid at the nanoscale – a millionth of a metre in scale,” said another author.

Proteins regularly form condensates during liquid-to-liquid phase separation in a wide range of critical and healthy biological functions, such as the formation of human embryos. This process assists biochemical reactions where protein concentrations are critical and also promotes healthy protein–protein interactions.

“However, this process also increases the risk of dysfunctional aggregation, where unhealthy aggregates of solid proteins form in human cells,” said another author.

“This can lead to aberrant structures associated with neurodegenerative diseases because the proteins no longer exhibit rapid reversibility back to liquid form. It is therefore crucial to monitor condensate dynamics, as they directly affect pathological states,” the author said.

The world-first nanoscale optical observation of this process has allowed the team to determine that the transition from liquid to solid protein starts at the interface of the protein condensates. This window onto the phase transition also revealed that the internal structures of these protein agglomerates are heterogenous, where previously they were thought to be homogeneous.

The author said: “Our findings promise to greatly improve our understanding of neurogenerative diseases from a fundamental perspective.

“This means a promising new area of research to better understand how Alzheimer’s disease and ALS develops in the brain, affecting millions of people worldwide.”