Some fifty years ago Stanley Lloyd Miller, an American chemist and biologist known for his studies in the origins of life, set aside some experimental samples that may have been able to provide him a breakthrough in his field.
Miller, who passed in 2007, was famous for his 1953 Miller-Urey experiment. The experiment showed the synthesis of organic compounds from a mixture of simulated hypothetical conditions, thought at the time to be present on the early Earth, and tested for the occurrence of chemical origins of life.
Though Miller’s experimental thesis was conducted in 1953, it did not produce the sulfur-rich amino acids until nearly twenty years later.
He had made much head way with his experiment, showing that he was able to create organic compounds. However, he may have missed his chance by not returning to these samples set aside fifty years ago. The experimental samples recently provided new evidence that volcanoes could have been the catalyst used to create life on earth.
The samples were discovered by Jeffrey Bada, a former student of Miller, who is also a Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego professor of marine chemistry. Upon discovering the samples in Miller’s laboratory material, Bada was able to analyze them using modern techniques.
His results showed that the early Earth may have consisted of a much more diverse range of organic compounds than scientists had realized.
“Much to our surprise the yield of amino acids is a lot richer than any experiment [Miller] had ever conducted,” says Bada.
Findings support the theory that the first amino acids were created by the combination of lightning and atmospheric hydrogen sulfide from volcanoes. Bada’s findings also found that the amino acids produced in Miller’s experiment with hydrogen sulfide are similar to those found in meteorites.
It now appears that Miller’s shelved mix more closely resembled early Earth conditions than did the gases in his more famous experiment.
“Unbeknownst to him, he’d already done it in 1958,” says Bada. The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published the full text of the experiment on March 21, 2011.