If you make a discovery and at first people tell you that it can’t be right, and then they eventually switch to telling you ‘we knew that all along,’ then you are probably on to something.” It’s a quip that has stuck in Clifford Brangwynne’s mind. For the biophysicist at Princeton University, that is “exactly what happened with our findings on intracellular liquid phases.”

Think of liquids with different properties that don’t really mix but, under specific circumstances, cluster and separate like the shifting blobs in a lava lamp. That phenomenon, also known as liquid-liquid phase separation, was once considered to be an exclusively chemical process. But less than a decade ago, Brangwynne became one of the first to observe it happening inside cells as well, and ever since then, biologists have been trying to learn its significance.

Now scientists are beginning to understand that evolution has tuned certain proteins to act in aggregate like liquids. Through phase separation, they spontaneously self-assemble into dynamic, membrane-free, dropletlike structures that can perform needed tasks in cells.

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