Repository logo

Thermally Driven Membrane Phase Transitions Enable Content Reshuffling in Primitive Cells.

Published version



Change log


Rubio-Sánchez, Roger  ORCID logo
O'Flaherty, Derek K  ORCID logo
Coscia, Francesca 
Petris, Gianluca 


Self-assembling single-chain amphiphiles available in the prebiotic environment likely played a fundamental role in the advent of primitive cell cycles. However, the instability of prebiotic fatty acid-based membranes to temperature and pH seems to suggest that primitive cells could only host prebiotically relevant processes in a narrow range of nonfluctuating environmental conditions. Here we propose that membrane phase transitions, driven by environmental fluctuations, enabled the generation of daughter protocells with reshuffled content. A reversible membrane-to-oil phase transition accounts for the dissolution of fatty acid-based vesicles at high temperatures and the concomitant release of protocellular content. At low temperatures, fatty acid bilayers reassemble and encapsulate reshuffled material in a new cohort of protocells. Notably, we find that our disassembly/reassembly cycle drives the emergence of functional RNA-containing primitive cells from parent nonfunctional compartments. Thus, by exploiting the intrinsic instability of prebiotic fatty acid vesicles, our results point at an environmentally driven tunable prebiotic process, which supports the release and reshuffling of oligonucleotides and membrane components, potentially leading to a new generation of protocells with superior traits. In the absence of protocellular transport machinery, the environmentally driven disassembly/assembly cycle proposed herein would have plausibly supported protocellular content reshuffling transmitted to primitive cell progeny, hinting at a potential mechanism important to initiate Darwinian evolution of early life forms.



Artificial Cells

Journal Title

J Am Chem Soc

Conference Name

Journal ISSN


Volume Title



American Chemical Society (ACS)
EPSRC (1949809)
Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EP/L015978/1)
Is supplemented by: