The Origin of Life

Simulated tubular crystal

Tubular crystals

Cairns-Smith discussed some tubular crystals in Genetic Takeover.

In particular he discusses imogolite in chapter six.

This essay is concerned with the idea that it is possible to convert practically any clay that grows in flat sheets into a type of tubular crystal - by simply rolling it up into a tube.

Many clay minerals form flat sheets - and appear to grow primarily at their edges. In most cases the sheets are thin enough to be flexible - and sometimes they can even be folded up - like sheets of paper - into origami-like patterns.

Although the chances of it happening in any particular case are slender, these crystals are almost all capable of rolling up into closed tubes.

Tubular crystal


A crystal tube has some curious properties from our perspective.

Such tubes would grow to form long, stringy crystals, that would be somewhat flexible and difficult to snap.

Lack of brittleness seems pretty undesirable from the point of view of a candidate early organism - since breaking into pieces is how such crystals reproduce.

However, nothing becomes infinitely long - and even a crystal tube would not be immune to sufficiently powerful tensile stresses.

If pulled apart, these crystals would be quite likely to unravel into long strips in the process. The strips would then coil up again - or at least partially do so. The resulting coiling patterns could be influenced by any serial patterns along the edges of the strips.

There may be potential in this area for programmed folding - with resulting catalytic and enzymatic behaviour.

While tubular crystals seem likely to be severely reproductively challenged, they do seem to have some unique properties, that may mean they had a role to play in the origin of life.


These crystals could have stored information in patterns of concentric layers, or along two (or more) directions along their sides, or - at least in theory - in any combination of these.

Tim Tyler | Contact |