Sloppy science or groundbreaking idea? Theory for how cells organize contents divides biologists

Mitch Leslie in Science:

For 7 years as president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Robert Tjian helped steer hundreds of millions of dollars to scientists probing provocative ideas that might transform biology and biomedicine. So the biochemist was intrigued a couple of years ago when his graduate student David McSwiggen uncovered data likely to fuel excitement about a process called phase separation, already one of the hottest concepts in cell biology.

Phase separation advocates hold that proteins and other molecules self-organize into denser structures inside cells, like oil drops forming in water. That spontaneous sorting, proponents assert, serves as a previously unrecognized mechanism for arranging the cell’s contents and mustering the molecules necessary to trigger key cellular events. McSwiggen had found hints that phase separation helps herpesviruses replicate inside infected cells, adding to claims that the process plays a role in functions as diverse as switching on genes, anchoring the cytoskeleton, and repairing damaged DNA. “It’s pretty clear this process is at play throughout the cell,” says biophysicist Clifford Brangwynne of Princeton University.

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