Researchers discover DNA droplets can pop like balloons
Scientists discovered a strange bubbling phenomenon in human DNA and proteins — like a pot of water that started boiling even though they forgot to turn on the stove.
In a research article published July 14 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists stated they discovered that when enzymes are able to penetrate droplets of DNA, the degradation rate is enhanced, and it can cause internal bubbling.
Omar Saleh, a UCSB physicist, materials scientist and professor, is the co-author of the study, and said this bubbling without heat being added from the outside was “very unexpected.”
“It’s really just a striking and odd thing. It’s funny looking at a droplet of DNA and watching it blow up and burst,” the professor told the News-Press. “The system isn’t being heated at all. It’s just the proteins making it happen.”
While watching bubbles entertained the researchers in and of itself, Dr. Saleh said there’s a significance to the finding.
“Understanding molecular mechanisms of biological matter is a great frontier of scientific research,” he said. “There’s a lot to do with this frontier to understand it and eventually exploit it. The better you understand it, the better chance you have of actually using it.”
This bubbling helps scientists understand not only how DNA acts in cells, but how droplet formation controls genes and turns them on and off.
“It told us that even though these are droplets that are very dense and crowded, it was still possible for these proteins to suddenly zoom through and get to the middle and make this bubble happen,” Dr. Saleh continued. He added that discovering this phenomenon “is a way of getting a firm understanding of an important biological mechanism and that expanding that scientific basis helps to understand more complex things and more biological things.”
According to the abstract of the article, “Biomolecules can undergo liquid–liquid phase separation (LLPS), forming dense droplets that are increasingly understood to be important for cellular function. These results point to a complex interplay of phase stability and solute transport in liquid–liquid phase-separating macromolecular systems.”
While on sabbatical, Dr. Saleh made his findings alongside Tim Liedl and other partners at the Ludwig-Maximilians University (LMU) in Munich, Germany. Together, the researchers devised a system of “lava-lamp like” DNA particles whose structure they could control and studied how these interacted with other particles.
Dr. Saleh and his team were able to make this discovery thanks to an award he received from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.
“This is one thing that scientists are finally figuring out: mechanisms of how life works,” he said.