McKelvey School of Engineering

RNA’s solo act on the ever-changing stage of cellular dynamics

Researchers have found that RNA molecules can undergo phase separation in a temperature-dependent manner, and this phase behavior is supported by magnesium ions in solution. Here, CAG-repeat RNA droplets are shown in a physiologically relevant buffer. (Image courtesy of Gable Wadsworth and Priya Banerjee)

RNA has been in the limelight for its starring role in cutting-edge vaccine technology, but RNA molecules are also key players in the inner workings of cells. Scientists have shown that RNA molecules undergo phase separation to form physically distinct, gel-like condensates.

Co-phase separation of RNA molecules and RNA-binding proteins is known to drive the creation of cellular condensates, which are specialized, membraneless structures that are involved in various cellular processes and have been associated with neurodegenerative disorders. But what about RNA’s behavior when it’s a solo act? RNA can also undergo phase transitions in the absence of proteins. However, the fundamental physicochemical forces behind protein-free, RNA-driven phase transitions remain unclear. New collaborative research sheds light on the role of temperature in RNA phase separation, particularly the heating and cooling required to form condensates. 

The study, published Nov. 6 in Nature Chemistry, was led by Priya R. Banerjee, associate professor of physics at the State University of New York at Buffalo, in collaboration with Rohit Pappu, PhD, the Gene K. Beare Distinguished Professor of biomedical engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, and Venkat Gopalan, professor of chemistry & biochemistry at Ohio State University.

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