Prebiotically-relevant low polyion multivalency can improve functionality of membraneless compartments

Fatma Pir Cakmak, Saehyun Choi, McCauley C.O. Meyer, Philip C. Bevilacqua, Christine D. Keating

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

75 Scopus citations


Multivalent polyions can undergo complex coacervation, producing membraneless compartments that accumulate ribozymes and enhance catalysis, and offering a mechanism for functional prebiotic compartmentalization in the origins of life. Here, we evaluate the impact of lower, more prebiotically-relevant, polyion multivalency on the functional performance of coacervates as compartments. Positively and negatively charged homopeptides with 1–100 residues and adenosine mono-, di-, and triphosphate nucleotides are used as model polyions. Polycation/polyanion pairs are tested for coacervation, and resulting membraneless compartments are analyzed for salt resistance, ability to provide a distinct internal microenvironment (apparent local pH, RNA partitioning), and effect on RNA structure formation. We find that coacervates formed by phase separation of the shorter polyions more effectively generated distinct pH microenvironments, accumulated RNA, and preserved duplexes than those formed by longer polyions. Hence, coacervates formed by reduced multivalency polyions are not only viable as functional compartments for prebiotic chemistries, they can outperform higher molecular weight analogues.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number5949
JournalNature communications
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Chemistry
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Physics and Astronomy


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