Soft interactions and crowding
The intracellular milieu is complex, heterogeneous and crowded—an environment vastly different from dilute solutions in which most biophysical studies are performed. The crowded cytoplasm excludes about a third of the volume available to macromolecules in dilute solution. This excluded volume is the sum of two parts: steric repulsions and chemical interactions, also called soft interactions. Until recently, most efforts to understand crowding have focused on steric repulsions. Here, we summarize the results and conclusions from recent studies on macromolecular crowding, emphasizing the contribution of soft interactions to the equilibrium thermodynamics of protein stability. Despite their non-specific and weak nature, the large number of soft interactions present under many crowded conditions can sometimes overcome the stabilizing steric, excluded volume effect.