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Clay-armored bubbles may have formed first protocells
Date:2/6/2011

ell," while preventing larger structures from leaving.

Scientists have studied montmorillonite, an abundant clay, for hundreds of years, and the mineral is known to serve as a chemical catalyst, encouraging lipids to form membranes and single nucleotides to join into strands of RNA.

Because liposomes and RNA would have been essential precursors to primordial life, Subramaniam and his coauthors suggest that the pores in the clay vesicles could do double duty as both selective entry points and catalytic sites.

"The conclusion here is that small fatty acid molecules go in and self-assemble into larger structures, and then they can't come out," says principal investigator Howard A. Stone, the Dixon Professor in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Princeton, and a former Harvard faculty member. "If there is a benefit to being protected in a clay vesicle, this is a natural way to favor and select for molecules that can self-organize."

Future research will explore the physical interactions between the platelike clay particles, and between the liquids and the clay. The researchers are also interested to see whether these clay vesicles can, indeed, be found in the natural environment today.

"Whether clay vesicles could have played a significant role in the origins of life is of course unknown," says Subramaniam, "but the fact that they are so robust, along with the well-known catalytic properties of clay, suggests that they may have had some part to play."


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Contact: Caroline Perry
cperry@seas.harvard.edu
617-496-3815
Harvard University
Source:Eurekalert  

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