Functional aggregation of cell-free proteins enables fungal ice nucleation

Ralph Schwidetzky, Ingrid de Almeida Ribeiro, Nadine Bothen, Anna T. Backes, Arthur L. DeVries, Mischa Bonn, Janine Fröhlich-Nowoisky, Valeria Molinero, Konrad Meister

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Biological ice nucleation plays a key role in the survival of cold-adapted organisms. Several species of bacteria, fungi, and insects produce ice nucleators (INs) that enable ice formation at temperatures above -10 °C. Bacteria and fungi produce particularly potent INs that can promote water crystallization above -5 °C. Bacterial INs consist of extended protein units that aggregate to achieve superior functionality. Despite decades of research, the nature and identity of fungal INs remain elusive. Here, we combine ice nucleation measurements, physicochemical characterization, numerical modeling, and nucleation theory to shed light on the size and nature of the INs from the fungus Fusarium acuminatum. We find ice-binding and ice-shaping activity of Fusarium IN, suggesting a potential connection between ice growth promotion and inhibition. We demonstrate that fungal INs are composed of small 5.3 kDa protein subunits that assemble into ice-nucleating complexes that can contain more than 100 subunits. Fusarium INs retain high ice-nucleation activity even when only the ~12 kDa fraction of size-excluded proteins are initially present, suggesting robust pathways for their functional aggregation in cell-free aqueous environments. We conclude that the use of small proteins to build large assemblies is a common strategy among organisms to create potent biological INs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2303243120
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Issue number46
StatePublished - Nov 14 2023


  • heterogeneous ice nucleation
  • ice-nucleating proteins
  • fungi
  • protein assembly

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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