In 1953, chemists Stanley Miller and Harold Urey created life. They filled flasks with water and gases from Earth’s primordial atmosphere and, with a jolt of electricity, created amino acids, the building blocks of all life on this planet. Last year, a former student of Miller’s discovered the remnants of the Miller-Urey experiment in a cardboard box, and decided to give the creation of life another go.
The Miller-Urey experiment originally created a stir because the chemists managed to create organic materials from inorganic ones. This turned the study of the origins of life, abiogenesis, on its head. It suggested that life on Earth could be the result of lightning strikes in an atmosphere filled with ammonia, hydrogen, and methane. But the amino acids never formed more complex proteins, and the products of the experiment, including the vials of artificially induced proto-life, were placed in storage.
After Miller’s death last year, a marine chemist Jeffrey Bada discovered the materials, as well as Miller’s notes on the experiment. These notes included the suggestion to add steam to the electrical sparks in order to replicate the conditions of early Earth. By updating Miller’s techniques, Bada has been able to produce 22 amino acids from inorganic matter, 17 more than the original experiment. Said Bada:
“It just opens our eyes. It’s still revealing new things. What else is there that we haven’t found out from this experiment?”
This still doesn’t solve the question of how abiogenesis occurred on Earth, nor does it rule out the possibility of extraterrestrial contributions to our DNA. But it does prove that sometimes it pays to be a packrat. Image from Scripps Institute of Oceanography. From Old Vials, New Hints on Origin of Life [NY Times]