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Before life began on Earth, the environment likely contained a massive number of chemicals that reacted with each other more or less randomly, and it is unclear how things as complex as cells could have emerged from such chemical chaos.

Now, a team led by Tony Z. Jia of the Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) at the Tokyo Institute of Technology and Kuhan Chandru of the National University of Malaysia, has shown that simple α-hydroxy acids, like glycolic and lactic acid (which is used in common store-bought facial peels), spontaneously polymerize and self-assemble into polyester microdroplets when dried at moderate temperatures followed by rehydration, as might have happened along primitive beaches and river banks or in drying puddles. These form a new type of cell-like compartment which can trap and concentrate biomolecules like nucleic acids and proteins. These droplets, unlike most modern cells, are able to easily merge and reform and thus could have hosted versatile early genetic and metabolic systems potentially critical for the origins of life.

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