A synergy between site-specific and transient interactions drives the phase separation of a disordered, low-complexity domainPriyesh Mohanty, Jayakrishna Shenoy, Azamat Rizuan, José F. Mercado-Ortiz, Nicolas L. Fawzi, Jeetain Mittal
TAR DNA-binding protein 43 (TDP-43) is involved in key processes in RNA metabolism and is frequently implicated in many neurodegenerative diseases, including amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and frontotemporal dementia. The prion-like, disordered C-terminal domain (CTD) of TDP-43 is aggregation-prone, can undergo liquid-liquid phase separation (LLPS) in isolation, and is critical for phase separation (PS) of the full-length protein under physiological conditions. While a short conserved helical region (CR, spanning residues 319-341) promotes oligomerization and is essential for LLPS, aromatic residues in the flanking disordered regions (QN-rich, IDR1/2) are also found to play a critical role in PS and aggregation. Compared with other phase-separating proteins, TDP-43 CTD has a notably distinct sequence composition including many aliphatic residues such as methionine and leucine. Aliphatic residues were previously suggested to modulate the apparent viscosity of the resulting phases, but their direct contribution toward CTD phase separation has been relatively ignored. Using multiscale simulations coupled with in vitro saturation concentration (c sat ) measurements, we identified the importance of aromatic residues while also suggesting an essential role for aliphatic methionine residues in promoting single-chain compaction and LLPS. Surprisingly, NMR experiments showed that transient interactions involving phenylalanine and methionine residues in the disordered flanking regions can directly enhance site-specific, CR-mediated intermolecular association. Overall, our work highlights an underappreciated mode of biomolecular recognition, wherein both transient and site-specific hydrophobic interactions act synergistically to drive the oligomerization and phase separation of a disordered, low-complexity domain.