Researchers examined that the millions of molecules bumping around in a cell "find" one another and organize into functional structures. So it was a big surprise in 2008 when participants in the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) Physiology course realized that simple phase separations like oil separating from water may be one important way to create order inside a cell. The study was published in Science.

While not without controversy, this idea has taken cell biology by storm. In the past decade, scientists have watched protein and RNA molecules condensing into droplets, or membrane-free condensates, in many kinds of cells, from bacteria to human. They have also noted that the same proteins that form liquid droplets in healthy cells can "solidify" in the context of disease, such as neurodegenerative disorders. But what makes certain molecules come together in the same droplet, while others are excluded, has been unexplained.

The team shows for the first time that RNA molecules recognize one another to condense into the same droplet due to specific 3D shapes that the molecules assume. A group of 70 scientists who explored this emerging paradigm of the cellular organization over five summers of intense, synergistic research.

"RNA molecules will end up in different droplets if their secondary (3D) structures are shielding any complementarity. But with the RNAs that condense into the same droplet, their complementary sequences are exposed, so they can find each other and base pair to make a higher-order interaction," Gladfelter says.

This finding is important in that it reveals a selective mechanism for forming these RNA-protein condensates which scientists see everywhere in cells but whose function is still unclear. The condensates may serve as "crucibles" for enhancing biological reactions by concentrating specific molecules together. Or they may sequester molecules that the cell doesn't need for a particular biological process.

Researcher has previously demonstrated in the fungus that it's critical that the cell undergoes a liquid-liquid phase separation in order for two different biological processes to occur. But they need more examples of where it really matters for cell function. The field needs evidence "that this is not just something that proteins and RNAs can do, but that nature has selected for it.

There are also indications that transition of these liquid condensates to a more solid state may be a factor in protein aggregation diseases, such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and Huntington's diseases, ALS, and prion diseases. The current finding helps us understand how the right components get recruited to droplets so cells can potentially avoid this transition to an aberrant, solid state.