We all know the story of the Miller-Urey experiment. In 1953, a young graduate student named Stanley Miller ran an off-the-wall experiment: he ran water, methane, ammonia, and hydrogen in a sealed flask with a pair of electrodes to produce a spark, and from those simple building blocks discovered that more complex compounds, such as amino acids, were spontaneously produced. Stanley Miller died in 2007, and in going through his effects, the original apparatus was discovered, and in addition, several small sealed vials containing the sludge produced in the original experiment were also found.
This isn’t too surprising. I’ve gone through a few old scientists’ labs, and you’d be surprised at all the antiquities they preserved, all with notes documenting exactly what they are. It’s habit to keep this stuff.
Now the cool part, though: the scientists who unearthed the old samples ran them through modern analysis techniques, which are a bit more sensitive than the tools they had in the 1950s. In 1953, Miller reported the recovery of five amino acids from his experiment. The reanalysis found twenty two amino acids and five amines in the vials. He was more successful than he knew!
Yes, I know that Miller’s reducing atmosphere is no longer considered to be an accurate representation of the ancient earth’s atmosphere. However, the experiment still supported a key idea: that the synthesis of these organic compounds did not require any kind of guiding hand, but would naturally emerge from unassisted chemical reactions. Furthermore, the authors of this paper argue that while it was not a good model of the global atmosphere, it might still model local conditions in isolated areas.
Geoscientists today doubt that the primitive atmosphere had the highly reducing composition Miller used. However, the volcanic apparatus experiment suggests that, even if the overall atmosphere was not reducing, localized prebiotic synthesis could have been effective. Reduced gases and lightning associated with volcanic eruptions in hot spots or island arc-type systems could have been prevalent on the early Earth before extensive continents formed. In these volcanic plumes, HCN, aldehydes, and ketones may have been produced, which, after washing out of the atmosphere, could have become involved in the synthesis of organic molecules. Amino acids formed in volcanic island systems could have accumulated in tidal areas, where they could be polymerized by carbonyl sulfide, a simple volcanic gas that has been shown to form peptides under mild conditions.
So good work, Dr Miller!
Johnson AP, Cleaves HJ, Dworkin JP, Glavin DP, Lazcano A, Bada JL (2008) The Miller Volcanic Spark Discharge Experiment. Science 322(5900):404.