Cellular Function Driven by Polymer Concepts

Polymers can be found everywhere in biology. DNA is probably the most widely known biopolymer, which can extend to extreme length. Also widely known are cytoskeletal elements that give mechanical stability to living matter. Even at the length scale of a single protein, polymers can be found widely in biology.  Intrinsically disordered proteins (IDPs) are essentially disordered protein polymers that contribute to precise and vital roles in selected cellular mechanisms. IDPs account for about 50% of the eukaryotic proteome and are thus of highest relevance to the life sciences. Fundamental to a better understanding of IDP function is a rigorous description from a polymer physics point of view, this is best achieved by a combined bottom up approach from chemical physics with biophysical chemistry. Besides the functional implication of IDPs in several central eukaryotic mechanisms, IDPs are infamous for their role in amyloid-like neurodegenerative diseases. How important a polymer view is on biology, is evident from the recent excitement about membraneless-organelles in biology. The functional importance of membrane-less organelles, such as nucleoli, stress granules, Cajal bodies etc. in cell and developmental biology has been known for a long time. In general, was widely accepted that meso-scale protein and protein/RNA assemblies play crucial roles in the cell, e.g. in compartmentalization, RNA metabolism, DNA damage response and sorting of cell content. However, for decades it has remained unclear how such organelles are actually formed, maintained and regulated. Only recently awareness has been created that such meso-scale assemblies may exist in different material states, spanning a continuum from highly dynamic, liquid-like states over gel-like states to solid amyloids. This recent development shows, how important a polymer view is on biology (see figure). In addition, many technologies established in polymer science are likely to make an impact in the life sciences. Vice vs, biology also offers a new challenge for polymer theory and experiments to cope with additional complexity. This focus group is interested at using the polymer view to understand function in biology, at all length scales and dimensions. In turn, another goal is to harvest our knowledge on biological polymers for the purpose of bio-inspired material science research.

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