It has recently become clear that large-scale macromolecular self-assembly is a rule, rather than an exception, of intracellular organization. A growing number of proteins and RNAs have been shown to self-assemble into micrometer-scale clusters that exhibit either liquid-like or gel-like properties. Given their proposed roles in intracellular regulation, embryo development, and human disease, it is becoming increasingly important to understand how these membraneless organelles form and to map their functional consequences for the cell. Recently developed optogenetic systems make it possible to acutely control cluster assembly and disassembly in live cells, driving the separation of proteins of interest into liquid droplets, hydrogels, or solid aggregates. Here we propose that these approaches, as well as their evolution into the next generation of optogenetic biophysical tools, will allow biologists to determine how the self-assembly of membraneless organelles modulates diverse biochemical processes.
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