Living cells are densely packed with a diverse array of molecules, from proteins and nucleic acids to small metabolites and ions. How are the myriad cellular processes that they coordinate compartmentalized in space and time? Membrane-bound intracellular organelles protect our genetic material in the nucleus, permit respiration in mitochondria, allow recycling of cellular waste products in autophagosomes, and control degradation of material in lysosomes. Each of these compartments defines a unique environment specialized for its functions. However, molecules can also partition into separate, non-miscible phases, in the absence of a membrane boundary. These molecular condensates, as they are known, are like oil droplets in water: they separate spontaneously from their surroundings. This complex phenomenon at the intersection of physics and biology is known as liquid-liquid phase separation and results in membrane-less compartments that have recently been implicated in diverse biological processes. However, the precise nature and behavior of these droplets in the complex cellular environment remain poorly understood.
“It has become clear that the study of liquid-liquid phase separation requires a combination of approaches, ranging from soft-matter physics, computer simulations, structural biology, biochemistry, and cell biology”, says Bojan Zagrovic. The centerpiece of the doctoral education will be a special two-semester course on theory, simulation and wet-lab experiments in the investigation of liquid-liquid phase separation. Faculty members of the doc.fund will not only be teaching, but also attending the course together with the PhD students, strengthening the expertise of students and group leaders alike. “In the doc.fund, we will combine our knowledge and skills to train a cohort of students to tackle fundamental questions surrounding the formation of biomolecular condensates and their physiological relevance in a multidisciplinary way”.
Bojan Zagrovic (coordinator), Max Perutz Labs
Kristina Djinovic-Carugo, Max Perutz Labs
Robert Konrat, Max Perutz Labs
Ivan Yudushkin, Max Perutz Labs
Elif Karagöz, Max Perutz Labs
Tim Clausen, IMP
Shambaditya Saha, IMBA
Sofia Kantorovich, Faculty of Physics & University of Vienna