Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres

, Volume 38, Issue 4, pp 329–341 | Cite as

Stability of Model Membranes in Extreme Environments

Primitive Membranes


The first forms of cellular life required a source of amphiphilic compounds capable of assembling into stable boundary structures. Membranes composed of fatty acids have been proposed as model systems of primitive membranes, but their bilayer structure is stable only within a narrow pH range and low ionic strength. They are particularly sensitive to aggregating effects of divalent cations (Mg+2, Ca+2, Fe+2) that would be present in Archaean sea water. Here we report that mixtures of alkyl amines and fatty acids form vesicles at strongly basic and acidic pH ranges which are resistant to the effects of divalent cations up to 0.1 M. Vesicles formed by mixtures of decylamine and decanoic acid (1:1 mole ratio) are relatively permeable to pyranine, a fluorescent anionic dye, but permeability could be reduced by adding 2 mol% of a polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon such as pyrene. Permeability to the dye was also reduced by increasing the chain length of the amphiphiles. For instance, 1:1 mole ratio mixtures of dodecylamine and dodecanoic acid were able to retain pyranine dye during and following gel filtration. We conclude that primitive cell membranes were likely to be composed of mixtures of amphiphilic and hydrophobic molecules that manifested increased stability over pure fatty acid membranes.


Amphiphiles Alkylamines Early cellular life Extreme environments Fatty acids Primitive membranes Self-assembly 



The authors thank Pasquale Stano (“Enrico Fermi” Research Centre, Rome), Peter Walde (ETH-Zurich), Helmut Zepik (ETH-Zurich) and Felix Olasagasti (UCSC) for useful discussions. This research was supported by a grant from the NASA Exobiology program.


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© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Chemistry and BiochemistryUniversity of California Santa CruzSanta CruzUSA

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