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J Am Chem Soc. 2009 Jul 1;131(25):9094-9. doi: 10.1021/ja902890r.

In vivo formation of protein based aqueous microcompartments.

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  • 1Department of Chemical Engineering, McMaster University, Hamilton, ON L8S 4L7 Canada.


In this paper, we report the formation of protein based liquid droplets resulting in the formation of in vivo microcompartments in E. coli or tobacco cells. These microcompartments were generated by expressing elastin-like polypeptides (ELP), which have the ability to undergo a reversible phase transition, resulting in the formation of an aqueous two-phase system (ATPS) in the cytoplasm of the cell. We prove that these microcompartments are liquid by expressing a fusion protein consisting of ELP and GFP and by performing fluorescence recovery after photobleaching (FRAP) experiments at different stages of cell cultivation. In the initial phases of cell growth, the fusion protein concentration is low and is not sufficient to drive the formation of a second aqueous phase. As the intracellular fusion protein concentration increases with longer cultivation time, droplets start forming, and as protein expression continues, the droplets coalesce at the poles of the E. coli cells. FRAP experiments with cells at different growth stages reveals that the protein in these ELP based droplets is comprised of aqueous and not solid aggregates, as seen in typical inclusion bodies. Staining of the ribosomes and coimaging of the ELP-GFP fusion protein showed that these compartments exclude the protein making machinery of the cell, acting as depots for newly formed protein. It is also shown, in vitro, that ELP based droplets result in the exclusion of proteases, protecting proteins from degradation. Additional studies are still required to test this possibility in vivo. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first report characterizing the formation of an engineered extra aqueous phase in a living organism.

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