The cytosol is a semi-fluid substance filling the interior of the cell and embedding the other organelles. Together, the cytosol and all organelles, except the nucleus, make up the cytoplasm (Clegg JS. 1984). The cytosol itself is enclosed by the cell membrane and the membranes of different organelles, thus making up a separate cellular comparment. Example images of proteins localized to the cytosol can be seen in Figure 1.

Of all human proteins, 4476 (23%) have been experimentally shown to localize to the cytosol (Figure 2). Analysis of the cytosolic proteome shows highly enriched terms for biological processes related to protein modification, mRNA degradation, metabolic processes, signal transduction, and cell death. About 78% (n=3469) of the cytosolic proteins localize to other cellular compartments in addition to the cytosol. The most common additional locations are the nucleus and the plasma membrane.

G3BP1 - U-251 MG



Figure 1. Examples of proteins localized to the cytosol. G3BP1 is an enzyme localized in the cytosol and plays a role in signal transduction pathway (detected in U-251 MG cells). QARS catalyze the aminoacylation of tRNA by their associated amino acid (detected in U-2 OS cells). MTHFS is an enzyme involved in metabolic processes (detected in U-2 OS cells).

  • 23% (4476 proteins) of all human proteins have been experimentally detected in the cytosol by the Human Protein Atlas.
  • 1635 proteins in the cytosol are supported by experimental evidence and out of these 364 proteins are enhanced by the Human Protein Atlas.
  • 3469 proteins in the cytosol have multiple locations.
  • 450 proteins in the cytosol show a cell to cell variation. Of these 354 show a variation in intensity and 107 a spatial variation.

  • Cytosolic proteins are mainly involved in protein modification, mRNA degradation, metabolic processes, signal transduction, and cell death.

Figure 2. 23% of all human protein-coding genes encode proteins localized to the cytosol. Each bar is clickable and gives a search result of proteins that belong to the selected category.

Composition of the cytosol


  • Aggresome: 18
  • Cytosol: 4395
  • Cytoplasmic bodies: 74
  • Rods & Rings: 21
The cytosol makes up about 70% of the cells total volume, and is highly crowded and complex (Luby-Phelps K. 2013). Rather than a liquid, it is often described as a hydrophilic jelly-like matrix that allows for free movement of ions, hydrophilic molecules and proteins, but also larger structures such as protein complexes or vesicles, across the cell. The cytosol is mainly composed of water (approximately 80%) (Luby-Phelps K. 2000) and proteins. The amount of proteins is high, close to 200 mg/ml, occupying about 20-30% of the volume of the cytosol (Ellis RJ. 2001). Example images of the protein coded by MTHFD1 stained in 3 different cell lines can be seen in Figure 3.




Figure 3. Examples of the morphology of the cytosol in different cell lines, represented by immunofluorescent staining of protein MTHFD1 in A-431, U-251 MG and U-2 OS cells.

Ions such as potassium, sodium, bicarbonate, chloride, calcium, magnesium and amino acids are also important constitutes of the cytosol. The differences in concentration of these ions between the cytosol and the extracellular fluid or cytosolic organelles are essential for many cellular functions, for example to enable cell-to-cell communication at the synapses of nerve cells. Human cytosolic pH ranges between 7.0 - 7.4 and is usually higher if the cell is growing (Bright GR et al, 1987).

The cytosol can also contain different non-membrane bound structures, including cytoplasmic inclusions, such as glycogen-, pigment- and crystalline inclusions, and cytoplasmic bodies, such as P bodies and stress granules. P bodies are non-membrane bound foci of mRNA and proteins that function in RNA turnover, translational repression, RNA-mediated silencing, and RNA storage (Aizer A et al, 0). Other structures that can be found in the cytosol include aggresomes, and rods and rings (RR). Aggresomes are large inclusion bodies formed upon active retrograde transport of misfolded proteins though along microtubules (Kopito RR. 2000). This sequestration has cytoprotective function, for aggregated proteins that fails to be cleared by proteosome degradation. Rods and rings are filament-like cytoplasmic structures containing proteins involved in the biosythesis of the nucleotides, originally discovered by the use of human autoantibodies (Carcamo WC et al, 2014). These structures seem to be rare, and little is known about their biological function.

A selection of proteins suitable to be used as markers for the cytosol is listed in Table 1.

Table 1. Selection of proteins suitable as markers for the cytosol.

Gene Description Substructure
ADSL Adenylosuccinate lyase Cytosol
ATXN2 Ataxin 2 Cytosol
G3BP2 G3BP stress granule assembly factor 2 Cytosol
AIMP1 Aminoacyl tRNA synthetase complex interacting multifunctional protein 1 Cytosol
YARS Tyrosyl-tRNA synthetase Cytosol
DARS Aspartyl-tRNA synthetase Cytosol
SERBP1 SERPINE1 mRNA binding protein 1 Cytosol
CCDC43 Coiled-coil domain containing 43 Cytosol
EPRS Glutamyl-prolyl-tRNA synthetase Cytosol
HARS Histidyl-tRNA synthetase Cytosol
ATXN2L Ataxin 2 like Cytosol
AMPD2 Adenosine monophosphate deaminase 2 Cytosol
RABGAP1 RAB GTPase activating protein 1 Cytosol

Function of the cytosol

The cytosol has an important role in providing structural support for other organelles and in allowing transport of molecules across the cell. For example, metabolites often need to be transported across the cytosol from the area of their production to the site where they are needed, and various signals need to be transduced from the cell membrane to target compartments. While the cytosol is hydrophilic, hydrophobic molecules can also be transported by protein binding or in capsuled vesicles (Pelham HR. 1999). Moreover, many important cellular processes and reactions, especially of metabolic character, occur in the cytosol itself. These processes include protein synthesis through translation, the first stage of cellular respiration through glycolysis, and cell division through mitosis and meiosis.

The cytosol also plays a pivotal role in maintaining the action potential of excitable cells, such as neurons and muscle cells, by allowing the formation of ion gradients across membranes. As the protein concentration is high within the cytosol compared to the extracellular fluid, the differences in ion concentrations inside and outside of the cell also becomes important to regulate osmosis, which is essential for maintaining the water balance within the cell and protecting the cell from bursting (Lang F. 2007).

A list of highly expressed cytosolic proteins is summarized in Table 2. Gene Ontology (GO)-based analysis of the cytosolic proteome shows enrichment of terms that are well in-line with the known functions of the cytosol. The most highly enriched terms for the GO domain Biological Process are related to translation, post-translational modifications, signaling pathways, and cell death (Figure 4a). Enrichment analysis of the GO domain Molecular Function also shows significant enrichment for terms related to translation and protein metabolism (Figure 4b).

Figure 4a. Gene Ontology-based enrichment analysis for the cytosol proteome showing the significantly enriched terms for the GO domain Biological Process. Each bar is clickable and gives a search result of proteins that belong to the selected category.

Figure 4b. Gene Ontology-based enrichment analysis for the cytosol proteome showing the significantly enriched terms for the GO domain Molecular Function. Each bar is clickable and gives a search result of proteins that belong to the selected category.

Table 2. Highly expressed single localizing cytosolic proteins across different cell lines.

Gene Description Average NX
RPL23 Ribosomal protein L23 130
TPT1 Tumor protein, translationally-controlled 1 128
BTF3 Basic transcription factor 3 100
HSP90AB1 Heat shock protein 90 alpha family class B member 1 96
ALDOA Aldolase, fructose-bisphosphate A 94
PKM Pyruvate kinase M1/2 92
PFN1 Profilin 1 89
HSP90AA1 Heat shock protein 90 alpha family class A member 1 88
PABPC1 Poly(A) binding protein cytoplasmic 1 83
EIF4G2 Eukaryotic translation initiation factor 4 gamma 2 81

Cytosol proteins with multiple locations

Approximately 78% (n=3469) of the cytosolic proteins detected in the Human Protein Atlas also localize to other cellular compartments (Figure 5). The network plot shows that the most common compartments sharing proteins with the cytosol are the nucleus, the plasma membrane and nucleoli. Especially proteins that localize to both the cytosol and the nucleus, as well as the cytosol and the plasma membrane, are overrespresented. Indeed, there are many proteins known to be transported or to continuously shuttle between the cytosol and these compartments, including transcription factors, ribosomal proteins and signalling molecules. Examples of multilocalizing proteins within the cytosolic proteome can be seen in Figure 6.

Figure 5. Interactive network plot of the cytosol proteins with multiple localizations. The numbers in the connecting nodes show the proteins that are localized to the cytosol and to one or more additional locations. Only connecting nodes containing more than one protein and at least 0.5% of proteins in the cytosolic proteome are shown. The circle sizes are related to the number of proteins. The cyan colored nodes show combinations that are significantly overrepresented, while magenta colored nodes show combinations that are significantly underrepresented as compared to the probability of observing that combination based on the frequency of each annotation and a hypergeometric test (p<=0.05). Note that this calculation is only done for proteins with dual localizations. Each node is clickable and results in a list of all proteins that are found in the connected organelles.




Figure 6. Examples of multilocalizing proteins in the cytosolic proteome. RPL10A is a known ribosomal protein, which is required for formation of the 60S ribosomal subunits. It has been shown to localize both to the nucleoli and the cytosol (detected in U-2 OS cells). STAT5A belongs to the family of STAT transcription factors. It translocates from the cytosol into the nucleus in response to phosphorylation (detected in A-431 cells). DDX55 is a member of DEAD box protein family implicated in several cellular processes involving alteration of RNA secondary structure. It has been shown to localize to the nucleus, nucleoli and cytosol (detected in A-431 cells).

Expression levels of cytosol proteins in tissue

Transcriptome analysis and classification of genes into tissue distribution categories (Figure 8) shows that a larger fraction of the genes encoding proteins localizing to the cytosol and its substructures are detected in all tissues, while a smaller fraction restricted to some tissues, compared to all genes presented in the Cell Atlas.

Figure 7. Bar plot showing the percentage of genes in different tissue distribution categories for cytosol-associated protein-coding genes compared to all genes in the Cell Atlas. Asterisk marks a statistically significant deviation (p≤0.05) in the number of genes in a category based on a binomial statistical test. Each bar is clickable and gives a search result of proteins that belong to the selected category.

Relevant links and publications

Thul PJ et al, 2017. A subcellular map of the human proteome. Science.
PubMed: 28495876 DOI: 10.1126/science.aal3321

Aizer A et al, 0. Intracellular trafficking and dynamics of P bodies. Prion.
PubMed: 19242093 

Bright GR et al, 1987. Fluorescence ratio imaging microscopy: temporal and spatial measurements of cytoplasmic pH. J Cell Biol.
PubMed: 3558476 

Clegg JS. 1984. Properties and metabolism of the aqueous cytoplasm and its boundaries. Am J Physiol.
PubMed: 6364846 

Ellis RJ. 2001. Macromolecular crowding: obvious but underappreciated. Trends Biochem Sci.
PubMed: 11590012 

Lang F. 2007. Mechanisms and significance of cell volume regulation. J Am Coll Nutr.
PubMed: 17921474 

Luby-Phelps K. 2000. Cytoarchitecture and physical properties of cytoplasm: volume, viscosity, diffusion, intracellular surface area. Int Rev Cytol.
PubMed: 10553280 

Luby-Phelps K. 2013. The physical chemistry of cytoplasm and its influence on cell function: an update. Mol Biol Cell.
PubMed: 23989722 DOI: 10.1091/mbc.E12-08-0617

Pelham HR. 1999. The Croonian Lecture 1999. Intracellular membrane traffic: getting proteins sorted. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci.
PubMed: 10515003 DOI: 10.1098/rstb.1999.0491