60-Second Science

Life Origin Experiment Gets Better with Age

A reanalysis of Stanley Miller's classic 1953 experiment into the origins of life's biochemical building blocks shows that his results were even better than he thought they were. Karen Hopkin reports

[The following is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

In 1953 a student named Stanley Miller did an experiment showing that the simple chemicals present on the early Earth could give rise to the basic building blocks of life. Miller filled a flask with water, methane, hydrogen and ammonia—the main ingredients in the primordial soup. Then he zapped the brew with electricity to simulate lightning, and, voila, he created amino acids, crucial for life. Now, scientists have reanalyzed this classic experiment, and found that the results were even more remarkable than Miller had realized.

Jeffrey Bada, a former student of Miller’s, preserved the chemicals that were produced by those original sparks. And he analyzed the samples using equipment that wasn’t available in the ‘50s. He discovered an even greater variety of organic materials than Miller originally reported. For example, Bada’s team identified 22 amino acids where Miller only saw 11, results that appear in the October 17th issue of Science. They also found that Miller didn’t even report his best results, which came from a flask that was bathed in some steamy volcanolike vapors. That setup produced an even richer mix of amino acids. I guess Miller felt that he’d proved his point without needing any data that were primordially souped up.

—Karen Hopkin 

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