The aggregates and gels commonly observed during protein crystallization have generally been considered disordered phases without further characterization. Here their physical nature is addressed by investigating protein salting-out in ammonium sulfate and sodium chloride for six proteins (ovalbumin, ribonuclease A, soybean trypsin inhibitor, lysozyme, and β-lactoglobulin A and B) at 4°C, 23°C, and 37°C. When interpreted within the framework of a theoretical phase diagram obtained for colloidal particles displaying short-range attractive interactions, the results show that the formation of aggregates can be interpreted theoretically in terms of a gas-liquid phase separation for aggregates that are amorphous or gel-like. A notable additional feature is the existence of a second aggregation line observed for both ovalbumin and ribonuclease A in ammonium sulfate, interpreted theoretically as the spinodal. Further investigation of ovalbumin and lysozyme reveals that the formation of aggregates can be interpreted, in light of theoretical results from mode-coupling theory, as a kinetically trapped state or a gel phase that occurs through the intermediate of a gas-liquid phase separation. Despite the limitations of simple theoretical models of short-range attractive interactions, such as their inability to reproduce the effect of temperature, they provide a framework useful to describe the main features of protein phase behavior.
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