Cellular Sticking Can Strongly Reduce Complex Binding by Speeding Dissociation

Caitlin M. Davis, Martin Gruebele

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


While extensive studies have been carried out to determine protein-RNA binding affinities, mechanisms, and dynamics in vitro, such studies do not take into consideration the effect of the many weak nonspecific interactions in a cell filled with potential binding partners. Here we experimentally tested the role of the cellular environment on affinity and binding dynamics between a protein and RNA in living U-2 OS cells. Our model system is the spliceosomal protein U1A and its binding partner SL2 of the U1 snRNA. The binding equilibrium was perturbed by a laser-induced temperature jump and monitored by Förster resonance energy transfer. The apparent binding affinity in live cells was reduced by up to 2 orders of magnitude compared to in vitro. The measured in-cell dissociation rate coefficients were up to 2 orders of magnitude larger, whereas no change in the measured association rate coefficient was observed. The latter is not what would be anticipated due to macromolecular crowding or nonspecific sticking of the uncomplexed U1A and SL2 in the cell. A quantitative model fits our experimental results, with the major cellular effect being that U1A and SL2 sticking to cellular components are capable of binding, just not as strongly as the free complex. This observation suggests that high binding affinities measured or designed in vitro are necessary for proper binding in vivo, where competition with many nonspecific interactions exists, especially for strongly interacting species with high charge or large hydrophobic surface areas.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3815-3823
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Physical Chemistry B
Issue number15
StatePublished - Apr 22 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Materials Chemistry
  • Surfaces, Coatings and Films
  • Physical and Theoretical Chemistry


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