On the role of phase separation in the biogenesis of membraneless compartments
Musacchio A (2022) EMBO J.
Molecular mechanistic biology has ushered us into the world of life's building blocks, revealing their interactions in macromolecular complexes and inspiring strategies for detailed functional interrogations. The biogenesis of membraneless cellular compartments, functional mesoscale subcellular locales devoid of strong internal order and delimiting membranes, is among mechanistic biology's most demanding current challenges. A developing paradigm, biomolecular phase separation, emphasizes solvation of the building blocks through low-affinity, weakly adhesive unspecific interactions as the driver of biogenesis of membraneless compartments. Here, Musacchio discusses the molecular underpinnings of the phase separation paradigm and demonstrate that validating its assumptions is much more challenging than hitherto appreciated. He also discusses that highly specific interactions, rather than unspecific ones, appear to be the main driver of biogenesis of subcellular compartments, while phase separation may be harnessed locally in selected instances to generate material properties tailored for specific functions, as exemplified by nucleocytoplasmic transport.