Biomolecular condensates undergo a generic shear-mediated liquid-to-solid transition

Research output: Contribution to journalResearch articleContributedpeer-review


  • Yi Shen - , University of Cambridge (Author)
  • Francesco Simone Ruggeri - , University of Cambridge (Author)
  • Daniele Vigolo - , University of Birmingham (Author)
  • Ayaka Kamada - , University of Cambridge (Author)
  • Seema Qamar - , University of Cambridge (Author)
  • Aviad Levin - , University of Cambridge (Author)
  • Christiane Iserman - , Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics (Author)
  • Simon Alberti - , Chair of Cellular Biochemistry, Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics (Author)
  • Peter St George-Hyslop - , University of Cambridge, University of Toronto (Author)
  • Tuomas P.J. Knowles - , University of Cambridge (Author)


Membrane-less organelles resulting from liquid–liquid phase separation of biopolymers into intracellular condensates control essential biological functions, including messenger RNA processing, cell signalling and embryogenesis1–4. It has recently been discovered that several such protein condensates can undergo a further irreversible phase transition, forming solid nanoscale aggregates associated with neurodegenerative disease5–7. While the irreversible gelation of protein condensates is generally related to malfunction and disease, one case where the liquid-to-solid transition of protein condensates is functional, however, is that of silk spinning8,9. The formation of silk fibrils is largely driven by shear, yet it is not known what factors control the pathological gelation of functional condensates. Here we demonstrate that four proteins and one peptide system, with no function associated with fibre formation, have a strong propensity to undergo a liquid-to-solid transition when exposed to even low levels of mechanical shear once present in their liquid–liquid phase separated form. Using microfluidics to control the application of shear, we generated fibres from single-protein condensates and characterized their structural and material properties as a function of shear stress. Our results reveal generic backbone–backbone hydrogen bonding constraints as a determining factor in governing this transition. These observations suggest that shear can play an important role in the irreversible liquid-to-solid transition of protein condensates, shed light on the role of physical factors in driving this transition in protein aggregation-related diseases and open a new route towards artificial shear responsive biomaterials.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)841-847
Number of pages7
JournalNature nanotechnology
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2020

External IDs

PubMed 32661370
ORCID /0000-0003-4017-6505/work/142253852