Scientists finish a 53-year-old classic experiment on the origins of life

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In 1958, a young scientist called Stanley Miller electrified a mixture of simple gases, designed to mimic the atmosphere of our primordial lifeless planet. It was a sequel to one of the most evocative experiments in history, one that Miller himself had carried five years earlier. But for some reason, he never finished his follow-up. He dutifully collected his samples and stored them in vials but, whether for ill health or dissatisfaction, he never analysed them.

The vials languished in obscurity, sitting unopened in a cardboard box in Miller’s office. But possessed by the meticulousness of a scientist, he never threw them away. In 1999, the vials changed owners. Miller had suffered a stroke and bequeathed his old equipment, archives and notebooks to Jeffrey Bada, one of his former students. Bada only twigged to the historical treasures that he had inherited in 2007. “Inside, were all these tiny glass vials carefully labeled, with page numbers referring Stanley’s laboratory notes. I was dumbstruck. We were looking at history,” he said in a New York Times interview.

By then, Miller was completely incapacitated. He died of heart failure shortly after, but his legacy continues. Bada’s own student Eric Parker has finally analysed Miller’s samples using modern technology and published the results, completing an experiment that began 53 years earlier.

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Miller conducted his original 1953 experiment as a graduate student, working with his mentor Harold Urey. It was one of the first to tackle the seemingly insurmountable question of how life began. In their laboratory, the pair tried to recreate the conditions on early lifeless Earth, with an atmosphere full of simple gases and laced with lightning storms. They filled a flask with water, methane, ammonia and hydrogen and sent sparks of electricity through them.

The result, both literally and figuratively, was lightning in a bottle. When Miller looked at the samples from the flask, he found five different amino acids – the building blocks of proteins and essential components of life.

The relevance of these results to the origins of life is debatable, but there’s no denying their influence. They kicked off an entire field of research, graced the cover of Time magazine and made a celebrity of Miller. Nick Lane beautifully describes the reaction to the experiment in his book, Life Ascending: “Miller electrified a simple mixture of gases, and the basic building blocks of life all congealed out of the mix. It was as if they were waiting to be bidden into existence. Suddenly the origin of life looked easy.”

Over the next decade, Miller repeated his original experiment with several twists. He injected hot steam into the electrified chamber to simulate an erupting volcano, another mainstay of our primordial planet. The samples from this experiment were among the unexamined vials that Bada inherited. In 2008, Bada’s student Adam Johnson showed that the vials contained a wider range of amino acids than Miller had originally reported in 1953.

Miller also tweaked the gases in his electrified flasks. He tried the experiment again with two newcomers – hydrogen sulphide and carbon dioxide – joining ammonia and methane. It would be all too easy to repeat the same experiment now. But Parker and Bada wanted to look at the original samples that Miller had himself collected, if only for their “considerable historical interest”.

Using modern techniques, around a billion times more sensitive than those Miller would have used, Parker identified 23 different amino acids in the vials, far more than the five that Miller had originally described. Seven of these contained sulphur, which is either a first for science or old news, depending on how you look at it. Other scientists have since produced sulphurous amino acids in similar experiments, including Carl Sagan. But unbeknownst to all of them, Miller had beaten them to it by several years. He had even scooped himself – it took him till 1972 to publish results where he produced sulphur amino acids!

The amino acids in Miller’s vials all come in an equal mix of two forms, each the mirror image of the other. You only see that in laboratory reactions – in nature, amino acids come almost entirely in one version. As such, Parker, like Miller before him, was sure that the amino acids hadn’t come from a contaminating source, like a stray bacterium that had crept into the vials.

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Imagine then, a young and violent planet, wracked with exploding volcanoes, noxious gases and lightning strikes. These ingredients combined to brew a “primordial soup”, fashioning the precursors of life in pools of water. On top of that, meteorites raining down from space could have added to the accumulating molecules. After all, Parker found that the amino acid cocktail in Miller’s samples is very similar to that found on the Murchison meteorite, which landed in Australia in 1969.

These are powerful images, so why aren’t people more excited? Echoing many sources I spoke to, Jim Kasting, who studies the evolution of Earth’s atmosphere, said, “I am underwhelmed by it.” The main problem with the study is that Miller was probably wrong about the conditions on early Earth.

By analysing ancient rocks, scientists have since found that Earth was never particularly teeming in hydrogen-rich gases like methane, hydrogen sulphide or hydrogen itself. If you repeat Miller’s experiment with a more realistic mixture – heavy in carbon dioxide and nitrogen, with just trace amounts of other gases – you’d have a hard time finding amino acids in the resulting brew.

Parker accepts the problem, but he suggests that a few specific places on the planet may have had the right conditions. Exploding volcanoes, for example, throw up masses of sulphurous compounds, as well as methane and ammonia. These gases, belched forth into lightning storms, could have produced amino acids that rained out and gathered in tidal pools. But Kasting still isn’t convinced. “Even then the reduced gases would not be as concentrated as they are in this experiment.”

Even if our young planet had the right conditions to produce amino acids, that’s a less impressive feat than it appeared in the 1950s. “Amino acids are old hat and are a million miles from life,” says Nick Lane. Indeed, as Miller’s experiments showed, it’s not difficult to create amino acids. The far bigger challenge is to create nucleic acids – the building blocks of molecules like RNA and DNA. The origin of life lies in the origin of these “replicators”, molecules that can make copies of themselves. Lane says, “Even if you can make amino acids (and nucleic acids) under soup conditions, it has little if any bearing on the origin of life.”

The problem is that replicators don’t spontaneously emerge from a mixture of their building blocks, just as you wouldn’t hope to build a car by throwing some parts into a swimming pool. Nucleic acids are innately “shy”. They need to be strong-armed into forming more complex molecules, and it’s unlikely that the odd bolt of lightning would have been enough. The molecules must have been concentrated in the same place, with a constant supply of energy and catalysts to speed things up. “Without that lot, life will never get started, and a soup can’t provide much if any of that,” says Lane.

Deep-sea vents are a better location for the origins of life. Deep under the ocean’s surface, these rocky chimneys spew out superheated water and hydrogen-rich gases. Their rocky structures contain a labyrinth of small compartments that could have concentrated life’s building blocks into dense crowds, and minerals that would have catalysed their get-togethers. Far away from visions of languid soups, these churning environments are the current best guess for the site of life’s hatchery.

So Miller’s iconic experiment, and its now-completed follow-ups, probably won’t lay out the first steps of life. As Adam Rutherford, who is writing a book on the origin of life, says, “It’s really a historical piece, like finding that Darwin had described a Velociraptor in one of his notebooks.”

If anything, the analysis of Miller’s vials is a testament to the value of meticulous scientific work. Here was a man who prepared his samples so cleanly, who recorded his notes so thoroughly, and who stored everything so carefully, that his contemporaries could pick up where he left off five decades later.

Reference: Parker, Cleaves, Dworkin, Glavin, Callahan, Aubrey, Lazcano & Bada. 2011. Primordial synthesis of amines and amino acids in a 1958 Miller H2S-rich spark discharge experiment. PNAS http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1019191108

Photos by Carlos Gutierrez and Marco Fulle

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