While on the subject of primitive cell membranes, I consider the work done by the Szostak lab on fatty acid vesicles to be more relevant, illuminating, and important to understanding the origin of life, than any of the work they have done on the RNA world hypthesis.
Important selected publications that can help someone understand why I say this:
Semipermeable lipid bilayers exhibit diastereoselectivity favoring ribose. Sacerdote MG, Szostak JW. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2005 Apr. PDF
Nutrient uptake by a primitive cell would have been limited by the permeability characteristics of its membrane. We measured the permeabilities of model protocellular membranes to water, five of the six pentoses, and selected aldohexoses, ketohexoses, and three to six carbon alditols by following volume changes of vesicles after the addition of solute to the external medium. Solute hydrophobicities correlated poorly with permeability coefficients within one structural class of compounds. The permeability coefficients of diastereomeric sugars differed by as much as a factor of 10, with ribose being the most permeable aldopentose. Flexible alditols and sugars, sugars biased toward or restricted to furanose forms, and sugars having anomers with hydrophobic faces permeated more quickly than compounds lacking these features. Among the aldopentoses, only ribose possesses all of these properties. Ribose permeated both fatty acid and phospholipid membranes more rapidly than the other aldopentoses or hexoses. The enhanced permeability conferred by the unique conformational preferences of ribose would have allowed faster assimilation of ribose by primitive cells as they passively absorbed materials from the environment. The kinetic advantage of ribose over the other aldopentoses in crossing membranes may therefore have been one factor that facilitated the emergence of the RNA world.
Fatty Acid/Phospholipid Blended Membranes: A Potential Intermediate State in Protocellular Evolution. Jin L, Kamat NP, Jena S, Szostak JW . Small. 2018 Feb PDF.
Prior to the evolution of membrane proteins, intrinsic membrane stability and permeability to polar solutes are essential features of a primitive cell membrane. These features are difficult to achieve simultaneously in model protocells made of either pure fatty acid or phospholipid membranes, raising the intriguing question of how the transition from fatty acid to phospholipid membranes might have occurred while continuously supporting encapsulated reactions required for genomic replication. Here, the properties of a blended membrane system composed of both oleic acid (OA), a monoacyl fatty acid, and 1-palmitoyl-2-oleoyl-sn-glycero-3-phosphocholine (POPC), a diacyl phospholipid are described. This hybrid vesicle system exhibits high stability to divalent cations (Mg2+ ), while simultaneously maintaining its permeability to small charged molecules such as nucleotides and divalent ions such as Mg2+ . This combination of features facilitates key reactions expected to occur during a transition from primitive to modern cells, including nonenzymatic RNA replication, and is also compatible with highly evolved functions such as the ribosomal translation of a protein. The observations support the hypothesis that the early transition from fatty acid to phospholipid membranes could be accomplished through intermediate states in which membranes are composed of amphiphile mixtures, and do not require protein transporters.
Physical effects underlying the transition from primitive to modern cell membranes. Budin I, Szostak JW. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2011 Mar. PDF
To understand the emergence of Darwinian evolution, it is necessary to identify physical mechanisms that enabled primitive cells to compete with one another. Whereas all modern cell membranes are composed primarily of diacyl or dialkyl glycerol phospholipids, the first cell membranes are thought to have self-assembled from simple, single-chain lipids synthesized in the environment. We asked what selective advantage could have driven the transition from primitive to modern membranes, especially during early stages characterized by low levels of membrane phospholipid. Here we demonstrate that surprisingly low levels of phospholipids can drive protocell membrane growth during competition for single-chain lipids. Growth results from the decreasing fatty acid efflux from membranes with increasing phospholipid content. The ability to synthesize phospholipids from single-chain substrates would have therefore been highly advantageous for early cells competing for a limited supply of lipids. We show that the resulting increase in membrane phospholipid content would have led to a cascade of new selective pressures for the evolution of metabolic and transport machinery to overcome the reduced membrane permeability of diacyl lipid membranes. The evolution of phospholipid membranes could thus have been a deterministic outcome of intrinsic physical processes and a key driving force for early cellular evolution.
A simple physical mechanism enables homeostasis in primitive cells. Engelhart AE, Adamala KP, Szostak JW. Nat Chem. 2016 May. PDF.
The emergence of homeostatic mechanisms that enable maintenance of an intracellular steady state during growth was critical to the advent of cellular life. Here, we show that concentration-dependent reversible binding of short oligonucleotides, of both specific and random sequence, can modulate ribozyme activity. In both cases, catalysis is inhibited at high concentrations, and dilution activates the ribozyme via inhibitor dissociation, thus maintaining near-constant ribozyme specific activity throughout protocell growth. To mimic the result of RNA synthesis within non-growing protocells, we co-encapsulated high concentrations of ribozyme and oligonucleotides within fatty acid vesicles, and ribozyme activity was inhibited. Following vesicle growth, the resulting internal dilution produced ribozyme activation. This simple physical system enables a primitive homeostatic behaviour: the maintenance of constant ribozyme activity per unit volume during protocell volume changes. We suggest that such systems, wherein short oligonucleotides reversibly inhibit functional RNAs, could have preceded sophisticated modern RNA regulatory mechanisms, such as those involving miRNAs.
Work by other groups have corroborated similar phenomena:
Black RA, Blosser MC. A Self-Assembled Aggregate Composed of a Fatty Acid Membrane and the Building Blocks of Biological Polymers Provides a First Step in the Emergence of Protocells. Life (Basel). 2016 Aug 11;6(3). pii: E33. doi: 10.3390/life6030033
We propose that the first step in the origin of cellular life on Earth was the self-assembly of fatty acids with the building blocks of RNA and protein, resulting in a stable aggregate. This scheme provides explanations for the selection and concentration of the prebiotic components of cells; the stabilization and growth of early membranes; the catalysis of biopolymer synthesis; and the co-localization of membranes, RNA and protein. In this article, we review the evidence and rationale for the formation of the proposed aggregate: (i) the well-established phenomenon of self-assembly of fatty acids to form vesicles; (ii) our published evidence that nucleobases and sugars bind to and stabilize such vesicles; and (iii) the reasons why amino acids likely do so as well. We then explain how the conformational constraints and altered chemical environment due to binding of the components to the membrane could facilitate the formation of nucleosides, oligonucleotides and peptides. We conclude by discussing how the resulting oligomers, even if short and random, could have increased vesicle stability and growth more than their building blocks did, and how competition among these vesicles could have led to longer polymers with complex functions.
These articles are all well worth reading if you’re interested in understanding how primitive cells could have functioned without modern phospholipid membranes and complicated transport proteins, and they really do document experiments showing that these physical mechanisms work. And it’s based on actual experiments that documents these very real physical effects.
People who say there’s no progress in origin of life research are simply talking nonsense.