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Modelling the dynamics of a minimal protocell container

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 September 2005

Martin Nilsson Jacobi
Complex Systems Group, Chalmers University of Technology, 41296 Gothenburg, Sweden e-mail:
Steen Rasmussen
Self-Organizing Systems, EES-6, Los Alamos National Laboratory, MS-D462, Los Alamos NM 87545, USA Santa Fe Institute, Santa Fe NM 87501, USA University of Copenhagen, IMBG, Blegdamsvej 3, DK-2200 Denmark
Kolbjørn Tunstrøm
Complex Systems Group, Chalmers University of Technology, 41296 Gothenburg, Sweden e-mail:


This paper is a discussion on how reaction kinetics and three-dimensional (3D) lattice simulations can be used to elucidate the dynamical properties of micelles as a possible minimal protocell container. We start with a general discussion on the role of molecular self-assembly in prebiotic and contemporary biological systems. A simple reaction kinetic model of a micellation process of amphiphilic molecules in water is then presented and solved analytically. Amphiphilic molecules are polymers with hydrophobic (water-fearing), e.g. hydrocarbon tail groups, and hydrophilic (water-loving) head groups, e.g. fatty acids. By making a few simplifying assumptions an analytical expression for the size distribution of the resulting micelles can be derived. The main part of the paper presents and discusses a lattice gas technique for a more detailed 3D simulation of molecular self-assembly of amphiphilic polymers in aqueous environments. Water molecules, hydrocarbon tail groups and hydrophilic head groups are explicitly represented on a three-dimensional discrete lattice. Molecules move on the lattice proportional to their continuous momentum. Collision rules preserve momentum and kinetic energy. Potential energy from molecular interactions are also included explicitly. The non-trivial thermodynamics of large-scale and long-time dynamics are studied. In this paper we specifically demonstrate how, from a random initial distribution, micelles are formed and grow until they destabilize and can divide. Eventually a steady state of growing and dividing micelles is formed. Towards the end of the paper we discuss the relevance of the presented results to the design of a minimal artificial protocell.

Research Article
2005 Cambridge University Press

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