Before life began on Earth, the environment likely contained a massive number of chemicals that reacted with each other more or less randomly, and it is unclear how things as complex as cells could have emerged from such chemical chaos. Now, a team led by Tony Z. Jia, PhD, of the Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) at the Tokyo Institute of Technology and Kuhan Chandru, PhD, of the National University of Malaysia, has shown that simple α-hydroxy acids, like glycolic and lactic acid (which is used in common store-bought facial peels), spontaneously polymerize and self-assemble into polyester microdroplets when dried at moderate temperatures followed by rehydration, as might have happened along primitive beaches and river banks or in drying puddles. These form a new type of cell-like compartment which can trap and concentrate biomolecules like nucleic acids and proteins. These droplets, unlike most modern cells, are able to easily merge and reform and thus could have hosted versatile early genetic and metabolic systems potentially critical for the origins of life. The new work was published online on July 22, 2019 in PNAS in an article titled “Membraneless Polyester Microdroplets As Primordial Compartments at the Origins of Life.” Scientists from around the world are actively working to understand how life began. All modern Earth life, from bacteria to humans, is made up of cells. Cells are comprised of lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids, with the lipid forming the cell membrane, an enclosure that keeps the other components together and interfaces with the environment, exchanging food and waste. How molecular assemblages as complex as cells originally formed remains a mystery.
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