Collaboration between primitive cell membranes and soluble catalysts (Nature Communications 2016)

Collaboration between primitive cell membranes and soluble catalysts

Katarzyna P. Adamala, Aaron E. Engelhart (joint first author), and Jack W. Szostak

Nature Communications, 2016.

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graphical abstract

Scientific Abstract

One widely held model of early life suggests primitive cells consisted of simple RNA-based catalysts within lipid compartments. One possible selective advantage conferred by an encapsulated catalyst is stabilization of the compartment, resulting from catalyst-promoted synthesis of key membrane components. Here we show model protocell vesicles containing an encapsulated enzyme that promotes the synthesis of simple fatty acid derivatives become stabilized to Mg2+, which is required for ribozyme activity and RNA synthesis. Thus, protocells capable of such catalytic transformations would have enjoyed a selective advantage over other protocells in high Mg2+ environments. The synthetic transformation requires both the catalyst and vesicles that solubilize the water-insoluble precursor lipid. We suggest that similar modified lipids could have played a key role in early life, and that primitive lipid membranes and encapsulated catalysts, such as ribozymes, may have acted in conjunction with each other, enabling otherwise-impossible chemical transformations within primordial cells.