Inorganic life in a shell

Might inorganic nanocapsules have been the minute reaction vessels that allowed life to emerge? Research by Stephen Mann of the University of Bristol, UK, and colleagues suggests the answer to that question might be yes. Mann's team created silicon-based membranes with hydrophilic and hydrophobic properties akin to those of lipid bilayers in natural cells and produced nanoparticulate, self-assembled "protocells" which acted as primitive semi-permeable membranes. "Lipids and fatty acids may not have been available in the very early stages of pre-biotic organization because of the complexity of their chemical synthesis," says Mann. "As a plausible alternative, inorganic-based mechanisms might have emerged to produce the membrane-bound compartments required for the origin of life."