Thermodynamics of wetting, prewetting and surface phase transitions with surface binding

Xueping Zhao, Giacomo Bartolucci, Alf Honigmann, Frank Jülicher, Christoph A. Weber

Research output: Journal PublicationArticlepeer-review

15 Citations (Scopus)


In living cells, protein-rich condensates can wet the cell membrane and surfaces of membrane-bound organelles. Interestingly, many phase-separating proteins also bind to membranes leading to a molecular layer of bound molecules. Here we investigate how binding to membranes affects wetting, prewetting and surface phase transitions. We derive a thermodynamic theory for a three-dimensional bulk in the presence of a two-dimensional, flat membrane. At phase coexistence, we find that membrane binding facilitates complete wetting and thus lowers the wetting angle. Moreover, below the saturation concentration, binding facilitates the formation of a thick layer at the membrane and thereby shifts the prewetting phase transition far below the saturation concentration. The distinction between bound and unbound molecules near the surface leads to a large variety of surface states and complex surface phase diagrams with a rich topology of phase transitions. Our work suggests that surface phase transitions combined with molecular binding represent a versatile mechanism to control the formation of protein-rich domains at intra-cellular surfaces.

Original languageEnglish
Article number123003
JournalNew Journal of Physics
Issue number12
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2021
Externally publishedYes


  • surface binding
  • surface phase transitions
  • thermodynamics of wetting and prewetting

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Physics and Astronomy


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