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J Am Chem Soc. 2009 Jul 22;131(28):9628-9. doi: 10.1021/ja9029818.

Formation of protocell-like vesicles in a thermal diffusion column.

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Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138, USA.


Many of the properties of bilayer membranes composed of simple single-chain amphiphiles seem to be well-suited for a potential role as primitive cell membranes. However, the spontaneous formation of membranes from such amphiphiles is a concentration-dependent process in which a significant critical aggregate concentration (cac) must be reached. Since most scenarios for the prebiotic synthesis of fatty acids and related amphiphiles would result in dilute solutions well below the cac, the identification of mechanisms that would lead to increased local amphiphile concentrations is an important aspect of defining reasonable conditions for the origin of cellular life. Narrow, vertically oriented channels within the mineral precipitates of hydrothermal vent towers have previously been proposed to act as natural Clusius-Dickel thermal diffusion columns, in which a strong transverse thermal gradient concentrates dilute molecules through the coupling of thermophoresis and convection. Here we experimentally demonstrate that a microcapillary acting as a thermal diffusion column can concentrate a solution of oleic acid. Upon concentration, self-assembly of large vesicles occurs in regions where the cac is exceeded. We detected vesicle formation by fluorescence microscopy of encapsulated dye cargoes, which simultaneously concentrated in our channels. Our findings suggest a novel means by which simple physical processes could have led to the spontaneous formation of cell-like structures from a dilute prebiotic reservoir.

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