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Clay-armored bubbles may have formed first protocells

Cambridge, Mass. February 7, 2011 A team of applied physicists at Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), Princeton, and Brandeis have demonstrated the formation of semipermeable vesicles from inorganic clay.

The research, published online this week in the journal Soft Matter, shows that clay vesicles provide an ideal container for the compartmentalization of complex organic molecules.

The authors say the discovery opens the possibility that primitive cells might have formed inside inorganic clay microcompartments.

"A lot of work, dating back several decades, explores the role of air bubbles in concentrating molecules and nanoparticles to allow interesting chemistry to occur," says lead author Anand Bala Subramaniam, a doctoral candidate at SEAS.

"We have now provided a complete physical mechanism for the transition from a two-phase clayair bubble system, which precludes any aqueous-phase chemistry, to a single aqueous-phase clay vesicle system," Subramaniam says, "creating a semipermeable vesicle from materials that are readily available in the environment."

"Clay-armored bubbles" form naturally when platelike particles of montmorillonite collect on the outer surface of air bubbles under water.

When the clay bubbles come into contact with simple organic liquids like ethanol and methanol, which have a lower surface tension than water, the liquid wets the overlapping plates. As the inner surface of the clay shell becomes wet, the disturbed air bubble inside dissolves.

The resulting clay vesicle is a strong, spherical shell that creates a physical boundary between the water inside and the water outside. The translucent, cell-like vesicles are robust enough to protect their contents in a dynamic, aquatic environment such as the ocean.

Microscopic pores in the vesicle walls create a semipermeable membrane that allows chemical building blocks to enter the "c

Contact: Caroline Perry
Harvard University

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