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Date of Award

Summer 8-15-2017

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department

Biology & Biomedical Sciences (Computational & Molecular Biophysics)

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



Intrinsically disordered proteins and protein regions (IDPs) represent around thirty percent of the eukaryotic proteome. IDPs do not fold into a set three dimensional structure, but instead exist in an ensemble of inter-converting states. Despite being disordered, IDPs are decidedly not random; well-defined - albeit transient - local and long-range interactions give rise to an ensemble with distinct statistical biases over many length-scales. Among a variety of cellular roles, IDPs drive and modulate the formation of phase separated intracellular condensates, non-stoichiometric assemblies of protein and nucleic acid that serve many functions. In this work, we have explored how the amino acid sequence of IDPs determines their conformational behaviour, and how sequence and single chain behaviour influence their collective behaviour in the context of phase separation.

In part I, in a series of studies, we used simulation, theory, and statistical analysis coupled with a wide range of experimental approaches to uncover novel rules that further explore how primary sequence and local structure influence the global and local behaviour of disordered proteins, with direct implications for protein function and evolution. We found that amino acid sidechains counteract the intrinsic collapse of the peptide backbone, priming the backbone for interaction and providing a fully reconciliatory explanation for the mechanism of action associated with the denaturants urea and GdmCl. We discovered that proline can engender a conformational buffering effect in IDPs to counteract standard electrostatic effects, and that the patterning those proline residues can be a crucial determinant of the conformational ensemble. We developed a series of tools for analysing primary sequences on a proteome wide scale and used them to discover that different organisms can have substantially different average sequence properties. Finally, we determined that for the normally folded protein NTL9, the unfolded state under folding conditions is relatively expanded but has well defined native and non-native structural preferences.

In part II, we identified a novel mode of phase separation in biology, and explored how this could be tuned through sequence design. We discovered that phase separated liquids can be many orders of magnitude more dilute than simple mean-field theories would predict, and developed an analytic framework to explain and understand this phenomenon. Finally, we designed, developed and implemented a novel lattice-based simulation engine (PIMMS) to provide sequence-specific insight into the determinants of conformational behaviour and phase separation. PIMMS allows us to accurately and rapidly generate sequence-specific conformational ensembles and run simulations of hundreds of polymers with the goal of allowing us to systematically elucidate the link between primary sequence of phase separation.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

Rohit V. Pappu

Committee Members

Jan Bieschke, Gregory R. Bowman, Susan K. Dutcher, Robert Mecham,


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