Abstract

Spherical bounded structures such as those formed by surfactant aggregates (mostly micelles and vesicles), with an inside that is chemically and physically different from the outside medium, can be seen as primitive cell models. As such, they are fundamental structures for the theory of autopoiesis as originally formulated by Varela and Maturana. In particular, since self-reproduction is a very important feature of minimal cellular life, the study of self-reproduction of micelles and vesicles represents a quite challenging bio-mimetic approach. Our laboratory has put much effort in recent years into implementing self-reproduction of vesicles as models for self-reproduction of cellular bounded structures, and this article is a further contribution in this direction. In particular, we deal with the so-called matrix effect of vesicles, related to the fact that when fresh surfactant is added to an aqueous solution containing preformed vesicles of a very narrow size distribution, the newly formed vesicles (instead of being polydisperse, as is usually the case) have dimensions very close to those of the preformed ones. In practice, this corresponds to a mechanism of reproduction of vesicles of the same size. In this article, the matrix effect is re-elaborated in the perspective of the origin of life, and in particular in terms of the prebiotic mechanisms that might permit the growth and reproduction of vesicles. The data are analyzed by dynamic light scattering with a new program that permits the calculation of the number-weighted size distribution. It is shown that, on adding a stoichiometric amount of oleate micelles to preformed oleate vesicles extruded at 50 and 100 nm, the final distribution contains about twice the initial number of particles, centered around 50 and 100 nm. The same holds when oleate is added to preformed phospholipid liposomes. By contrast, when the same amount of oleate is added to an aqueous solution (as a control experiment), a very broad distribution ranging between 20 and 1000 nm is obtained. The data can then be seen as a kind of reproduction of the same size vesicles, and the argument is advanced that this may correspond to a simple prebiotic mechanism of vesicle multiplication in prebiotic times, when only physical forces might be responsible for the basic mechanisms of early protocell growth and division. Preliminary data also show that repeated addition of oleate maintains the same basic initial features, and that surfactants other than oleate also respect the reproductive mode of the matrix effect.

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