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Nucleobases bind to and stabilize aggregates of a prebiotic amphiphile, providing a viable mechanism for the emergence of protocells


Primordial cells presumably combined RNAs, which functioned as catalysts and carriers of genetic information, with an encapsulating membrane of aggregated amphiphilic molecules. Major questions regarding this hypothesis include how the four bases and the sugar in RNA were selected from a mixture of prebiotic compounds and colocalized with such membranes, and how the membranes were stabilized against flocculation in salt water. To address these questions, we explored the possibility that aggregates of decanoic acid, a prebiotic amphiphile, interact with the bases and sugar found in RNA. We found that these bases, as well as some but not all related bases, bind to decanoic acid aggregates. Moreover, both the bases and ribose inhibit flocculation of decanoic acid by salt. The extent of inhibition by the bases correlates with the extent of their binding, and ribose inhibits to a greater extent than three similar sugars. Finally, the stabilizing effects of a base and ribose are additive. Thus, aggregates of a prebiotic amphiphile bind certain heterocyclic bases and sugars, including those found in RNA, and this binding stabilizes the aggregates against salt. These mutually reinforcing mechanisms might have driven the emergence of protocells.

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