Imagine packing all the people in the world into the Great Salt Lake in Utah — all of us jammed shoulder to shoulder, yet also charging past one another at insanely high speeds. That gives you some idea of how densely crowded the 5 billion proteins in a typical cell are, said Anthony Hyman, a British cell biologist and a director of the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden.
Somehow in that bustling cytoplasm, enzymes need to find their substrates, and signaling molecules need to find their receptors, so the cell can carry out the work of growing, dividing and surviving. If cells were sloshing bags of evenly mixed cytoplasm, that would be difficult to achieve. But they are not. Membrane-bounded organelles help to organize some of the contents, usefully compartmentalizing sets of materials and providing surfaces that enable important processes, such as the production of ATP, the biochemical fuel of cells. But, as scientists are still only beginning to appreciate, they are only one source of order.
Recent experiments reveal that some proteins spontaneously gather into transient assemblies called condensates, in response to molecular forces that precisely balance transitions between the formation and dissolution of droplets inside the cell. Condensates, sometimes referred to as membraneless organelles, can sequester specific proteins from the rest of the cytoplasm, preventing unwanted biochemical reactions and greatly increasing the efficiency of useful ones. These discoveries are changing our fundamental understanding of how cells work.
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