From Old Vials, New Hints on Origin of Life
In 1953, Stanley L. Miller, then a graduate student of Harold C. Urey at the University of Chicago, put ammonia, methane and hydrogen — the gases believed to be in early Earth’s atmosphere — along with water in a sealed flask and applied electrical sparks to simulate the effects of lightning. A week later, amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, were generated out of the simple molecules.
Enshrined in high school textbooks, the Miller-Urey experiment raised expectations that scientists could unravel the origins of life with simple chemistry experiments.
The excitement has long since subsided. The amino acids never grew into the more complex proteins. Scientists now think the composition of air on early Earth was much different from what Dr. Miller used, leading some to question whether the Miller-Urey experiment had any relevance to the still unsolved problem of the origin of life.
After Dr. Miller’s death in May last year, Dr. Jeffrey L. Bada of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, who had been one of Dr. Miller’s graduate students, discovered cardboard boxes containing hundreds of vials of dried residues collected from the experiments conducted in 1953 and 1954.
Consulting Dr. Miller’s notebooks, Dr. Bada discovered that Dr. Miller had constructed two variations of the original apparatus. One simply used a different spark generator. The second injected steam onto the sparks.
That caught Dr. Bada’s attention, because the addition of steam seemed to replicate what might have existed in lagoons and tidal pools around volcanoes.