'Lost' samples from famous origin of life researcher could send search for first life in new direction

Mar 21, 2011
Preserved samples from a 1958 experiment done by "primordial soup" pioneer Stanley Miller contain amino acids created by the experiment. The samples had not undergone analysis until recently when Miller's former student Jeffrey Bada and colleagues discovered a wide range of amino acids. The find could be an important step toward understanding how life on Earth could have originated. The vials have been relabeled but the boxes are marked with Miller's original notes. Credit: Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego

(PhysOrg.com) -- Stanley Miller gained fame with his 1953 experiment showing the synthesis of organic compounds thought to be important in setting the origin of life in motion. Five years later, he produced samples from a similar experiment, shelved them and, as far as friends and colleagues know, never returned to them in his lifetime.

More 50 years later, Jeffrey Bada, Miller's former student and a current Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego professor of marine chemistry, discovered the samples in Miller's laboratory material and made a discovery that represents a potential breakthrough in the search for the processes that created Earth's first forms.

Former Scripps undergraduate student Eric Parker, Bada and colleagues report on their reanalysis of the samples in the March 21 issue of . Miller's 1958 experiment in which the gas was added to a mix of gases believed to be present in the atmosphere of early Earth resulted in the synthesis of sulfur as well as other amino acids. The analysis by Bada's lab using techniques not available to Miller suggests that a diversity of organic compounds existed on early planet Earth to an extent scientists had not previously realized.

"Much to our surprise the yield of amino acids is a lot richer than any experiment (Miller) had ever conducted," said Bada.

Scripps Oceanography professor of Marine Chemistry Jeffrey Bada holds a preserved sample from a 1958 experiment done by "primordial soup" pioneer Stanley Miller. The residue in the sample contains amino acids created by the experiment. The samples had not undergone analysis until recently when Bada and colleagues discovered a wide range of amino acids using modern detection methods. Credit: Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego

The new findings support the case that volcanoes — a major source of atmospheric hydrogen sulfide today — accompanied by lightning converted simple gases into a wide array of amino acids, which are were in turn available for assembly into early proteins.

Bada also found that the amino acids produced in Miller's experiment with hydrogen sulfide are similar to those found in meteorites. This supports a widely-held hypothesis that processes such as the ones in the laboratory experiments provide a model of how organic material needed for the origin of life are likely widespread in the universe and thus may provide the extraterrestrial seeds of life elsewhere.

Successful creation of the sulfur-rich amino acids would take place in the labs of several researchers, including Miller himself, but not until the 1970s.

"Unbeknownst to him, he'd already done it in 1958," said Bada.

Miller's initial experiments in the 1950s with colleague Harold Urey used a mixture of gases such as methane, ammonia, water vapor and hydrogen and electrically charged them as lightning would. The experiment, which took place in a closed chamber meant to simulate conditions on early Earth, generated several simple amino acids and other organic compounds in what became known as "primordial soup."

This is a photo of Stanley Miller in his UC San Diego lab in 1970. Credit: Scripps Institution of Oceanography Archives

With the gases and electrical energy they produce, many geoscientists believe the volcanoes on a young planet covered much more extensively by water than today's served as oases of raw materials that allowed prebiotic matter to accumulate in sufficient quantities to assemble into more complex material and eventually into primitive life itself. Bada had already begun reanalyzing Miller's preserved samples and drawing conclusions about the role of volcanoes in sparking early life when he came across the previously unknown samples. In a 2008 analysis of samples left from Miller's more famous experiment, Bada's team had been able to detect many more amino acids than his former mentor had thanks to modern techniques unavailable to Miller.

Miller, who became a chemistry professor at UCSD in 1960, conducted the experiments while a faculty member at Columbia University. He had collected and catalogued samples from the hydrogen sulfide mix but never analyzed them. He only casually mentioned their existence late in his life and the importance of the samples was only realized shortly before his death in 2007, Bada said. It turned out, however, that his 1958 mix more closely resembled what geoscientists now consider early conditions than did the gases in his more famous previous experiment.

The original box containing archived spark discharge samples prepared by Stanley Miller in 1958. For unknown reasons, Miller never analyzed these even though this is his first experiment using hydrogen sulfide. The label shows Miller’s original writing: p 114 refers to his notebook. Credit: Jeffrey Bada and Robert Benson/Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California at San Diego

"This really not only enhances our 2008 study but goes further to show the diversity of compounds that can be produced with a certain gas mixture," Bada said.

The Bada lab is gearing up to repeat Miller's classic experiments later this year. With modern equipment including a miniaturized microwave spark apparatus, experiments that took the elder researcher weeks to carry out could be completed in a day, Bada said.

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User comments : 11

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hylozoic
1 / 5 (3) Mar 21, 2011
Panspermia or bust. Occam's razor, yo.
whalio
5 / 5 (4) Mar 22, 2011
I'm really interested to see what comes out of all this. The first time I read about Miller's initial experiments it blew my mind. I'm really surprised that it was never followed up on.
Bonkers
3.3 / 5 (3) Mar 22, 2011
Although simple amino-acids can be produced in trace quantities this way, the chances of them assembling into any lifeform in a primordial soup is very close to zero - its just too dilute for any intermediate chemical species to survive. There are some interesting new proposals based on containment, within bubbles in rocks, that show promise, but for me it has to be panspermia. Simply put, the reaction coldness and vacuum allows energetically unfavoured chemical species to survive, and the gross reaction surface area x time of all those interstellar dust grains is immense.
kaasinees
5 / 5 (1) Mar 22, 2011
There are some interesting new proposals based on containment, within bubbles in rocks


You mean clay, not rocks.
kevinrtrs
1 / 5 (9) Mar 22, 2011
The article is so un-critical that one has to suspend belief.

Surely they should mention that unless Miller went out of his way to TRAP his precious amino acids, they would have mixed in again with the primordial soup and been totally destroyed?

So the rather clever experiment demonstrates nothing of a purely random, accidental process out in nature that can produce any of the building blocks of life.
There's simply too much interference by an intelligent outside agent.

So @Whalio, perhaps you should go and put your thinking cap on before becoming too enthused about the Miller experiment.

And the conclusions drawn by the researchers who want life out of nothing is simply laughable.
TheGhostofOtto1923
4.1 / 5 (9) Mar 22, 2011
And the conclusions drawn by the researchers who want life out of nothing is simply laughable.
No, the conclusions YOU draw about intelligent design at each new discovery in an ongoing search for the origin of life, is what's laughable.

I'm going to burn a bible today just for you kev. Unless I have something better to do.
tkjtkj
not rated yet Mar 22, 2011
I'm really interested to see what comes out of all this. The first time I read about Miller's initial experiments it blew my mind. I'm really surprised that it was never followed up on.


Even this article itself fails to 'follow up' on its own assertions!
Telling us that the results of analysis are vastly more impressive that Miller's initial announcements is quit menaingless without *some* examples of what is meant!
Physorg is famous for omitting photo's when a photo is the only thing the articl might be about, but now its omitting the very facts which it refers to!

sigh.
Ethelred
5 / 5 (5) Mar 24, 2011
The article is so un-critical that one has to suspend belief.
So why didn't you? after all nothing in the article is counter to physical law.

Surely they should mention that unless Miller went out of his way to TRAP his precious amino acids,
Lie. He carried out the experiments in a closed vessel. Had to so he maintain the gases involved.

they would have mixed in again with the primordial soup and been totally destroyed?
No. At least that was disguised as a question.

So the rather clever experiment demonstrates nothing of a purely random, accidental process out in nature that can produce any of the building blocks of life.
Who ever claimed the processes were random? They proceed according to physical laws. We even find amino acids in meteorites.

More
Ethelred
5 / 5 (6) Mar 24, 2011
SoThere's simply too much interference by an intelligent outside agent
Ah yes the standard Creationist damning for not doing experiments and then damning for doing them. There was no interference. A hypothesis was formed as the conditions and an experiment was created to test it. Very solid work. Exactly the sort of experiment YOU would be demanding if had not yet been done.

And the conclusions drawn by the researchers who want life out of nothing is simply laughable.
And for our next laugh...

I must perform the Kevin banishing incantation.

When was the Flood Kevin? How come the Egyptians didn't notice drowning since the standard dates for the Flood have it occurring during at the time the Egyptians were building the pyramids?

Goodbye Kevin.

See he is really a Demon and not a human at all. He can be banished. And I don't even have to herd 2000 pigs over a cliff to do it.

Ethelred
Objectivist
not rated yet Mar 26, 2011
@Ethelred
You're trying to use logic in an argument with a person who has clearly abandoned logic a long time ago. Try using fear; they seem to respond to that.
Ethelred
5 / 5 (1) Mar 27, 2011
Try using fear; they seem to respond to that.


In case you had not noticed Kevin is frightened of the question. He runs EVERY time it is asked.

Ethelred