Natural clay particles have been hypothesized as catalysts on the early Earth, potentially facilitating the formation of early organic (bio) molecules. Association of clay particles with droplets formed by liquid-liquid phase separation could provide a physical mechanism for compartmentalization of inorganic catalysts in primitive protocells. Here we explore the distribution of natural clay mineral particles in poly(ethylene glycol) (PEG)/dextran (Dx) aqueous two-phase systems (ATPS). We compared the three main types of natural clay: Kaolinite, montmorillonite and illite, all of which are aluminosilicates of similar composition and surface charge. The three clay types differ in particle size, crystal structure, and their accumulation at the ATPS interface and ability to stabilize droplets against coalescence. Illite and kaolinite accumulated at the aqueous/aqueous interface, stabilizing droplets against coalescence but not preventing their eventual sedimentation due to the mass of adsorbed particles. The ability of each clay-containing ATPS to catalyze reaction of o-phenylenediamine with peroxide to form 2,3-diaminophenazone was evaluated. We observed modest rate increases for this reaction in the presence of clay-containing ATPS over clay in buffer alone, with illite outperforming the other clays. These findings are encouraging because they support the potential of combining catalytic mineral particles with aqueous microcompartments to form primitive microreactors.
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