The research, published online in the journal Soft Matter, shows that clay vesicles provide an ideal container for the compartmentalization of complex organic molecules. The authors say the discovery opens the possibility that primitive cells might have formed inside inorganic clay microcompartments. “A lot of work, dating back several decades, explores the role of air bubbles in concentrating molecules and nanoparticles to allow interesting chemistry to occur,” says lead author Anand Bala Subramaniam, a doctoral candidate at SEAS. “We have now provided a complete physical mechanism for the transition from a two-phase clay-air bubble system, which precludes any aqueous-phase chemistry, to a single aqueous-phase clay vesicle system,” Subramaniam says, “creating a semipermeable vesicle from materials that are readily available in the environment.” “Clay-armored bubbles” form naturally when platelike particles of montmorillonite collect on the outer surface of air bubbles under water. When the clay bubbles come into contact with simple organic liquids like ethanol and methanol, which have a lower surface tension than water, the liquid wets the overlapping plates. As the inner surface of the clay shell becomes wet, the disturbed air bubble inside dissolves.
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