Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres

, Volume 36, Issue 2, pp 109–150 | Cite as

Surfactant Assemblies and their Various Possible Roles for the Origin(S) of Life



A large number of surfactants (surface active molecules) are chemically simple compounds that can be obtained by simple chemical reactions, in some cases even under presumably prebiotic conditions. Surfactant assemblies are self-organized polymolecular aggregates of surfactants, in the simplest case micelles, vesicles, hexagonal and cubic phases. It may be that these different types of surfactant assemblies have played various, so-far underestimated important roles in the processes that led to the formation of the first living systems.

Although nucleic acids are key players in the formation of cells as we know them today (RNA world hypothesis), it is still unclear how RNA could have been formed under prebiotic conditions. Surfactants with their self-organizing properties may have assisted, controlled and compartimentalized some of the chemical reactions that eventually led to the formation of molecules like RNA. Therefore, surfactants were possibly very important in prebiotic times in the sense that they may have been involved in different physical and chemical processes that finally led to a transformation of non-living matter to the first cellular form(s) of life. This hypothesis is based on four main experimental observations: (i) Surfactant aggregation can lead to cell-like compartimentation (vesicles). (ii) Surfactant assemblies can provide local reaction conditions that are very different from the bulk medium, which may lead to a dramatic change in the rate of chemical reactions and to a change in reaction product distributions. (iii) The surface properties of surfactant assemblies that may be liquid- or solid-like, charged or neutral, and the elasticity and packing density of surfactant assemblies depend on the chemical structure of the surfactants, on the presence of other molecules, and on the overall environmental conditions (e. g. temperature). This wide range of surface characteristics of surfactant assemblies may allow a control of surface-bound chemical reactions not only by the charge or hydrophobicity of the surface but also by its “softness”. (iv) Chiral polymolecular assemblies (helices) may form from chiral surfactants.

There are many examples that illustrate the different roles and potential roles of surfactant assemblies in different research areas outside of the field of the origin(s) of life, most importantly in investigations of contemporary living systems, in nanotechnology applications, and in the development of drug delivery systems. Concepts and ideas behind many of these applications may have relevance also in connection to the different unsolved problems in understanding the origin(s) of life.


Micelles vesicles bilayers liposomes surfactants protocell micellar catalysis surfaces 


Amino acids

Amino acids without specification of the configuration are L-amino acids




cetyltrimethylammonium bromide (= hexadecyltrimethylammonium bromide)


cetryltrimethylammonium hydroxide (= hexadecyltrimethylammonium hydroxide)


cetyltrimethylammonium tosylate (= hexadecyltrimethylammonium tosylate)


sodium octylsulfate


sodium dodecylsulfate


sodium dodecylbenzenesulfonate


tetraethyleneglycoldecyl ether (= n-C10H21(OCH2CH2)3OCH2CH2OH)


octaethyleneglycoldodecyl ether (= n-C8H17(OCH2CH2)7OCH2CH2OH)












1-palmitoyl-2-oleoyl-sn-glycero-3-phos phocholine
















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© Springer Science+Business Media, Inc. 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.ETH ZürichDepartment of MaterialsZürichSwitzerland

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