Origin of life: Stanley Miller’s forgotten experiments, analyzed

13

By Science Daily

Stanley Miller, the chemist whose landmark experiment published in 1953 showed how some of the molecules of life could have formed on a young Earth, left behind boxes of experimental samples that he never analyzed. The first-ever analysis of some of Miller’s old samples has revealed another way that important molecules could have formed on early Earth.

The study discovered a path from simple to complex compounds amid Earth’s prebiotic soup. More than 4 billion years ago, amino acids could have been attached together, forming peptides. These peptides ultimately may have led to the proteins and enzymes necessary for life’s biochemistry, as we know it.

In the new study, scientists analyzed samples from an experiment Miller performed in 1958. To the reaction flask, Miller added a chemical that at the time wasn’t widely thought to have been available on early Earth. The reaction had successfully formed peptides, the new study found. The new study also successfully replicated the experiment and explained why the reaction works.

“It was clear that the results from this old experiment weren’t some sort of artifact. They were real,” said Jeffrey Bada, distinguished professor of marine chemistry at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the UC San Diego. Bada was a former student and colleague of Miller’s.

The study was supported by the Center for Chemical Evolution at the Georgia Institute of Technology, which is jointly supported by the National Science Foundation and the NASA Astrobiology Program. The study was published online June 25 in the journalAngewandte Chemie International Edition. The work was primarily a collaboration between UC San Diego and the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. Eric Parker, the study’s lead author, was an undergraduate student in Bada’s laboratory and is now a graduate student at Georgia Tech.

Jeffrey Bada was Stanley Miller’s second graduate student. The two were close and collaborated throughout Miller’s career. After Miller suffered a severe stroke in 1999, Bada inherited boxes of experimental samples from Miller’s lab. While sorting through the boxes, Bada saw “electric discharge sample” in Miller’s handwriting on the outside of one box.

“I opened it up and inside were all these other little boxes,” Bada said. “I started looking at them, and realized they were from all his original experiments; the ones he did in 1953 that he wrote the famous paper in Science on, plus a whole assortment of others related to that. It’s something that should rightfully end up in the Smithsonian.”

The boxes of unanalyzed samples had been preserved and carefully marked, down to the page number where the experiment was described in Miller’s laboratory notebooks. The researchers verified that the contents of the box of samples were from an electric discharge experiment conducted with cyanamide in 1958 when Miller was at the Department of Biochemistry at the College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University.

An electric discharge experiment simulates early Earth conditions using relatively simple starting materials. The reaction is ignited by a spark, simulating lightning, which was likely very common on the early Earth.

13 COMMENTS

    • I remember those days with fondness too. Last year of high school in the mid 70′s. Miller’s experiment and introduction to DNA & RNA. My biology teacher was the very first real atheist I ever met. Miller’s experiment always reminds me of him and the open discussion he had with a few students in class on the origins of life.

      We were very young and still very much influenced by the core beliefs of Catholicism but he made a durable impression on me by his level of knowledge, his confidence and his laid back, humorous disposition when it to questioning religion.

  1. Miller experiment has been considered a failure for too much time. This new finding shows that, perhaps, there’s something more worth its consideration, I deem. This aspect about the pH conditions of the medium affects more the kinetics of the reaction than the possibility of it…

    • @ donnie86dc – Miller experiment has been considered a failure for too much time. This new finding shows that, perhaps, there’s something more worth its consideration, I deem.

      The Miller experiments were never failures. (Unless you give credence to crap from creationists.)
      They were the opening of doors to a whole range of follow-up experiments which are getting progressively nearer to artificially engineered self replicating life, and scientific explanations of abiogenesis.

    • I will go one further step than Alan.

      There is no such thing as a failed scientific experiment – of any kind.

      The observations made during any experiment may:

      Fail to live up to expectations
      Fail to deliver expected results
      Fail to support the hypothesis that led to the experiment’s being conducted

      … and so on …

      But in every such case the experiment has added to the sum of human knowledge. That is one of the great beauties of science.

      If an experiment fails to deliver to expectations then something new may have been discovered – a new avenue of exploration may have been opened, or a time-and-resource-wasting dead end may have been found.

      If an experiment fails to deliver expected results then perhaps some new wrinkle in an old theory has been discovered. What could be more exciting than an unexpected new discovery!

      If an experiment fails to support an hypothesis … well, you get the picture.

      We tend to think of success and failure as being the opposing zero-sum-game outcomes of our endeavours. Not so. In science, all observations are results and all results are useful.

      I have, of course, used the extreme cases to illustrate my point. In the case of Miller’s experiments, his were more nuanced, more suggestive, because he was starting with a vague hypothesis and trying to narrow the field of enquiry.

      As Rudyard Kipling so drily observed:

      If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
      If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
      If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster;
      And treat those two impostors just the same …

      Peace.

  2. @ OP – An electric discharge experiment simulates early Earth conditions using relatively simple starting materials. The reaction is ignited by a spark, simulating lightning, which was likely very common on the early Earth.

    Lightning is still very common on present day Earth, and has been confirmed on other planets of the Solar System.

    http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?release=2012-212

    NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has captured images of last year’s storm on Saturn, the largest storm seen up-close at the planet, with bluish spots in the middle of swirling clouds. Those bluish spots indicate flashes of lightning and mark the first time scientists have detected lightning in visible wavelengths on the side of Saturn illuminated by the sun.

    What scientists do know is that the intensity of the flash is comparable to the strongest flashes on Earth. The visible energy alone is estimated to be about 3 billion watts lasting for one second. The flash is approximately 100 miles (200 kilometers) in diameter when it exits the tops of the clouds. From this, scientists deduce that the lightning bolts originate in the clouds deeper down in Saturn’s atmosphere where water droplets freeze. This is analogous to where lightning is created in Earth’s atmosphere.

    In composite images that show the band of the storm wrapping all the way around Saturn, scientists have seen multiple flashes. In one composite image, they recorded five flashes, and in another, three flashes.

    “As summer storm season descends upon Earth’s northern latitudes, Cassini provides us a great opportunity to see how weather plays out at different places in our solar system,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist, based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. “Saturn’s atmosphere has been changing over the eight years Cassini has been at Saturn, and we can’t wait to see what happens next.”

  3. I remember quite well when the science teacher explained Stanley Miller’s results in our classroom. He was as excited to talk about these —then recent— discoveries as we were when we jumped up and down at a Jerry Lee Lewis concert ! !

    Eventhough I was only a teenager, this process of long-chain, prebiotic molecules forming process…. looked quite evident to me ! It resembled the natural reactions I could obtain with the chemist’s box I had received as x-mas gift a few years before…

    The problem for the scientific world, though, will be the next step : find out how these packs of agglomerating proteins developped that little detail which makes all the difference between the prebiotic and the biological world… that incredible “surviving-molecular-memory-program” who can reassemble an (almost) identical pack of proteins after it has replicated !

    In other words : how did the DNA double helix added itself into the picture ?

    And that’s another story….

  4. PS : I wonder how all these theists around the world will feel, deep in their mind… when a lab, somewhere, will officially announce that it has successfully built up, from simple existing chemical compounds, a real living cell that can replicate itself…

    • x-bone – I wonder how all these theists around the world will feel, deep in their mind… when a lab, somewhere, will officially announce that it has successfully built up, from simple existing chemical compounds, a real living cell that can replicate itself…

      Assertive denial by queues of ignoramuses spouting on the internet!

      AIG and other science deniers already have examples, where this has nearly been achieved, or where work on abiogenesis has been explained by leading experts.

      The Origin of Life – Abiogenesis – Dr. Jack Szostak – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U6QYDdgP9eg (10minutes)

      This has been CONFIRMED in Dr. Jack Szostak’s LAB. 2009 Nobel Laurette in medicine for his work on telomerase.

      It’s been 55 years since the Miller-Urey Experiment, and science has made enormous progress on solving the origin of life. This video summarizes one of the best leading models. Yes there are others. Science may never know exactly how life DID start, but we will know many ways how life COULD start. Don’t be fooled by creationist arguments as even a minimal understanding of biology and chemistry is enough to realize they have no clue what they are talking about.

      Note on how competition works. Water will flow across a membrane to try to equalize the ion concentration.

      Jack Szostak (Harvard/HHMI) Part 1: The Origin of Cellular Life on – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PqPGOhXoprU (55 minutes)

      If you try to google the subject, the videos of creationist denial crap, outnumber the educational science postings.

Leave a Reply