Compartmentalization is of crucial importance to biology. It likely played a role at the origin of life too. Indeed, primitive, prebiotically plausible molecules like aliphatic acids have been identified to create vesicles reminiscent of the cell wall. However, such compartments are static and do not show the traits we associate with a living entity. In contrast, the compartments of biology are dynamic and regulated through highly evolved, energy-consuming processes which allow for size-control and division. It is very unprovable that a compartment emerged with such regulatory machinery. Instead, we should be looking for simple, rudimentary mechanisms that control compartments without the need for complex machinery.
My research team is studying the fundamental physicochemical principles when chemical reaction cycles regulate the behavior of molecular assemblies. We found that such assemblies can spontaneously emerge when we feed them with high-energy molecules. Just like life, they will decay when that source of energy runs low. They can recycle each other’s building blocks and will compete for scarce nutrients. This lecture will lay out our findings and focus on how those could be relevant for understanding what life is and how it could have emerged.