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How to create life
October 17, 2008 7:28 PM   Subscribe

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.
posted by Mr_Zero (49 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
As a graduate of the University of Montana in Missoula, I must protest your exclusion of Miller's partner, the Nobel prize winning chemist and UM alumnus, Harold Clayton Urey.
posted by Tube at 7:50 PM on October 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


Actually, I think we now believe that the 'primordial soup' had a different composition, and that Miller's experiment wouldn't actually work with what we now think the early earth was like.
posted by delmoi at 7:51 PM on October 17, 2008


As a graduate of Unseen University in Ankh-Morpork, I must protest your exclusion of the first experimenter actually to give rise to life (with an egg-and-cress sandwich), Rincewind.
posted by Creosote at 7:54 PM on October 17, 2008 [6 favorites]


Actually, I think we now believe that the 'primordial soup' had a different composition, and that Miller's experiment wouldn't actually work with what we now think the early earth was like.

Indeed. It's sort of the crux of the article.

Which is, for the record, pretty cool.
posted by Alex404 at 7:55 PM on October 17, 2008 [3 favorites]


Really interesting article. As Alex404 notes, it's well worth a read.
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 8:00 PM on October 17, 2008


For me, the Miller experiments permanently solidified my love of Science. Nothing made me more of an believer in learning than the knowledge that through experimentation we learned that we all emerged from a ocean of goo made by volcanoes.

I feel so frustrated when Ultra Religious people find themselves threatened these kind of findings. My frustration comes them seeing the delightful complexity/simplicity of the universe as a challenge to their faith in an almighty God. Life emerging at the foot of an ancient volcano sounds like the garden of eden to me.

I sit firmly in "you don't know, and neither do we camp." That doesn't stop me from being ecstatic at the discovery of pieces of The Puzzle in old musty abandoned boxes.
posted by JimmyJames at 8:01 PM on October 17, 2008 [8 favorites]


Has there been further research in this area? Have people tried this experiment using what we currently know about the composition of the early Earth's oceans/atmosphere? The article makes it sound like Miller did his experiments, everyone got excited, then it gradually became apparent that the details about the composition were wrong, and then everyone just dropped it until they discovered these samples. It seems bizarre that there isn't a long line of these kinds of experiments constantly tweaked as we learn more about the early Earth.
posted by Sangermaine at 8:10 PM on October 17, 2008


Sangermaine: There has been quite a bit of work done on various models for amino acid and peptide synthesis:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abiogenesis
Not my field exactly but I get the impression that most of the research has been directed at figuring out how complex molecules formed from simple amino acids.
posted by speug at 8:32 PM on October 17, 2008


So we danced with amino acids and got self-replicating acids and then got proto-bacterium who danced with other proto-forms and got cells and danced with other cells and did the wastusi with intercelluar forms and then got photosynthesis (so CLEVER) and got then boogied with some mitocondria and some slutty Virii and then grooved some wonderful, random transformation and errors until we get the Brandenburg concertos?

C'mon babies. Lets get into the Major Key.
posted by The Whelk at 9:02 PM on October 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


maybe (a resurrected) miller and venter could meet in the middle :P

...in a cage match to the death!
posted by kliuless at 9:02 PM on October 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


Miller, working in his laboratory at the University of Chicago, demonstrated that when exposed to an energy source such as ultraviolet radiation, these compounds and water can react to produce amino acids essential for the formation of living matter.

primordial soup kitchen
posted by netbros at 9:04 PM on October 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


Professor's Urey's early researches concerned the entropy of diatomic gases and problems of atomic structure, absorption spectra and the structure of molecules.

I have no idea what that all means but I'll be damned if I don't think Urey was a badass in his field.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 9:06 PM on October 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


If you can't stand the heat, stay out of the primordial soup kitchen.
posted by zippy at 9:11 PM on October 17, 2008


nah. we're talking about the birth of consciousness. the great jump into the cognizant abyss. it's not a primordal soup kitchen, it's a primordial soul kitchen.
posted by lester at 9:19 PM on October 17, 2008


Genesis: The Scientific Quest for Life's Origins covers this field quite well.

And in Stardust: Supernovae and Life, we learn that the simplest amino acid, glycine, has been found (spectroscopically) in interstellar gas clouds. Many amino acids, as well as purines and pyrimidines (the building blocks of DNA), have been found in meteorites.
posted by neuron at 9:19 PM on October 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


Sangermaine,

Other factors in why the Miller-Urey experiment hasn't been followed up much in recent years:
(1) Amino acids occur in some meteorites, so they might have been delivered to Earth rather than made on Earth.
(2) As speug implied, amino acids are much simpler than proteins, and scientists have been focusing on how proteins, RNA, etc. originated.
(3) We still don't know that much about the physical and chemical conditions on the Earth at the time life began. For that matter, when life began is uncertain.
posted by lukemeister at 9:30 PM on October 17, 2008


(3) We still don't know that much about the physical and chemical conditions on the Earth at the time life began. For that matter, when life began is uncertain.

Well we know it was about 6,000 years ago, so we have that going for us.
posted by Mr_Zero at 9:39 PM on October 17, 2008 [5 favorites]


Ugh, the guy was only 23 when he ran this experiment? Makes me feel so unaccomplished. I'm not 23 yet, but I know I don't think I'll be doing anything this awesome when that time rolls around.
posted by Xere at 9:40 PM on October 17, 2008


If you want to learn more about astrobiology, here's a long, fairly accessible review article (1.08 MB pdf).

Xere,
I'm *way* older than 23 and I haven't done anything that awesome yet, but Malcolm Gladwell's latest article gave me hope that old dogs can learn new tricks.
posted by lukemeister at 9:45 PM on October 17, 2008 [3 favorites]


Well, I am 23, so I'm exactly the right age to feel kinda shitty right now.
posted by bettafish at 9:52 PM on October 17, 2008


The linked article says Miller was 22, so you can all feel that much worse;-)
posted by orange swan at 10:18 PM on October 17, 2008


I love you, Science.
posted by JibberJabber at 10:18 PM on October 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


Your one source is a news site (granted, it's the BBC, but still). Call back when a reputable science publication has more than a simple boiler diagram.
posted by Mblue at 11:14 PM on October 17, 2008


The most impactful discoveries in science aren't "eureka!" moments, but rather, things that inspire an "hmm, now that's odd..."

The amino acids-in-a-flask from electricity is cool; it the interpretation that's important (from the viewpoint of SCIENCE!) - if it can be achieved easily; then in the almost infinite universe it must almost positively have occurred many many many times.

Given that it occurs many times (and has been borne out from spectroscopic evidence that extra-solar amino acids exist), then that increases the odds that complex peptides may arise from amino acids. In an almost infinite universe, a number of complex peptides may arrange in self-replicating forms, &c&c.

Showing that each step (amino acids -> peptides or nucleotides -> RNA/DNA or lipids -> micelles, &c) can occur without the invisible hand of the market the intervention of an omnipotent incorporeal being is more evidence that the nature of our observable universe can bring about the wonder that is life.

I wonder if most people really understand or even have a general feel for just how big the observable universe is. We're here because... we're here. We wonder at how life (heh, how does one define life?) came to be because we happened to be one of those odds that ended up creating life.
posted by porpoise at 11:19 PM on October 17, 2008 [3 favorites]


In "Stardust: Supernovae and Life," we learn that the simplest amino acid, glycine, has been found (spectroscopically) in interstellar gas clouds. Many amino acids, as well as purines and pyrimidines (the building blocks of DNA), have been found in meteorites.

The Universe wants to live. If there is a God, it is this drive toward biological self-organization. The fifth force. The life force.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:34 PM on October 17, 2008


At age 23, my experiment consisted of vodka, lime juice, potato chips, and television. Once activated, I vomited in the kitchen sink and left it to sit overnight. In the morning, several new life forms had appeared.
posted by strangeleftydoublethink at 11:49 PM on October 17, 2008


Ugh, the guy was only 23 when he ran this experiment? Makes me feel so unaccomplished. I'm not 23 yet, but I know I don't think I'll be doing anything this awesome when that time rolls around.

Think that's bad? Sam Raimi made Evil Dead at the age of 21. 21.

Also, this is neat stuff.
posted by brundlefly at 11:49 PM on October 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


When the Beatles broke up, they were all still in their 20s.

Great article -- I remember reading about this experiment for the first time in college, and was dazzled by it. Like others have said, it was stuff like this that made me really fall in love with the absolute magnificence of the scientific method and its view of the world.
posted by scody at 12:02 AM on October 18, 2008


How to create life

Our parents had sex.
posted by mr_book at 12:13 AM on October 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


Your one source is a news site (granted, it's the BBC, but still). Call back when a reputable science publication has more than a simple boiler diagram.

It was published in Science, today. The full text is behind a pay wall.
posted by oneirodynia at 12:20 AM on October 18, 2008


Thanks oneirodynia. Now I have to decide if I can afford to be enlightened :)
posted by Mblue at 12:53 AM on October 18, 2008


I remember seeing an episode of Cosmos depict this experiment, back when I was a child. "In this vessel, are the notes of the music of life, though not the music itself." Left an impression, both then and now. (How miss you, Carl Sagan!)
posted by longdaysjourney at 3:03 AM on October 18, 2008


Er, how I miss you, that is. Though I hope I'm not alone in that. :)
posted by longdaysjourney at 3:04 AM on October 18, 2008


"In this vessel, are the notes of the music of life, though not the music itself."

I got a piano in my living room that has all the notes of "Maple Leaf Rag" right there in the keys, but for some reason, it don't make "Maple Leaf Rag" till I set down and play it. As an ee-volutionist, however, I do believe if I wait fer long enough, those notes will spontaneously self-organize into a song -- p'raps not something as difficult as "Maple Leaf", but most likely something on the order of "Asleep in the Deep".
posted by Faze at 5:38 AM on October 18, 2008


They hold evidence that life may have born violently, in erupting volcanoes in the midst of a thunderstorm.

I'm almost sure that next we'll find out that right then Beethoven had been playing from hidden speakers. It's the only thing missing.
posted by ersatz at 6:25 AM on October 18, 2008


Micelle formation amazes people (even people with PhD's in biochemistry) but they're not exactly difficult to form. Soap + water = micelles. (I found myself thinking about this during a presentation a while back where the guy kept using phrases like, "these will spontaneously form micelles" with a tone in his voice that would have gone better with, "Now I shall saw this woman in half and, yet, she will be completely unharmed!)

I have a friend who has piano that spontaneously plays 4'33" unless someone actively stops it!
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 6:57 AM on October 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


I have not read the second link yet, and I don't think I'm going to, because when I read the description, I had an image of a graduate student whistling tunelessly while cleaning out a broom closet and then she drops a box and BAM hissing smoke and something slithers up her lab coat and eats her face right off. And I think that's GOT to be more remarkable than whatever that link describes actually happening.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 9:38 AM on October 18, 2008


Has there been further research in this area?
Here's an interesting article.
Here's a presentation on the research mentioned in that article.
posted by nowonmai at 10:46 AM on October 18, 2008


I'm watching the video I linked to just above, and it's fascinating for anyone interested in the slightest in abiogenesis, and the various theories that organic chemicals from SPACE! might be important for abiogenesis on Earth. Highly recommended.
posted by nowonmai at 11:13 AM on October 18, 2008


I didn't even know about this experiment until now. It's fascinating, and sounds amazingly simple. I'd try it myself, but my last attempt at creating life in my lab didn't turn out so well. I'm still legally barred from ever entering the state of Kentucky. Lousy cemetary managers and their "rules".
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 2:42 PM on October 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


Minor reminiscence; just ignore me.
I remember reading about this research in middle school and it was considered a Very Big Deal back then. Now, the fact that the actual chemistry still exists 50 years later, is just as amazing, and that they can still learn more from the leftovers is even more amazing.
posted by unrepentanthippie at 3:38 PM on October 18, 2008


Mm, interesting, I wrote about this over a month ago on a private list, well you never know how stuff spreads on the 'net. This is what I wrote.

Many of us have wondered altho' happy with the theory of evolution, how on earth life could have started in the first place.

A biologist adventurer called Lyle Watson who died recently, gave me a working hypothesis in his book Supernature.

Based on the discovery by Miller and Urey in 1953 of the spontaneous creation of amino acids.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Miller_experiment

Watson calculated that the odds for the amino acids just lining up in the right fashion, to create a self recreating molecule to be around ten billion to one. To get ones mind around how colossally high these odds are, just start tossing a coin in the air and realise you require ten billion heads in a row and you realise how impossibly long, these odds seem.

Back in the late nineties I used to be on an email list called the egoist list, on this list was a catholic philosophy professor called Dennis Hudecki. Dennis came out with the brilliant metaphor, that it was like blasting a scrap metal yard, high in the air and it coming down assembled as a 747 lol. This had us all stymied for a while.

Then I thought of a way to explain colossally long odds.

In the UK we have a lottery where you have to choose six numbers from 49, the odds that you would get all 6 numbers is, 13983815 to one, that is just a tad under 14 million to one.

Say just for arguments sake, you choose as your numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 using these numbers gives you just as much chance as using any other six numbers.

What are the odds that your numbers would arrive in ascending order, ie first comes ball number one then ball number two then ball number three etc etc.

The answer is 13983815 * 6 * 5 * 4 * 3 * 2 * 1 which comes out at 10068346800 which is just over ten billion to one.

If this is how life got started on earth, it could make it very rare in the universe, if not unique.
posted by dollyknot at 4:50 AM on October 19, 2008


@dollyknot: extending your metaphor, it doesn't matter if it's a ten billion to one shot if you play the game trillions of times or more. Just on earth, you've got a surface area of over five quadtrillion square feet and a time span measured in tens of thousands to millions of years.
posted by theclaw at 9:01 AM on October 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


There are other factors though, it has to be the right kind of sun, with a nice friendly Jupiter to keep the Shoemaker Levy's of this universe at bay, it is not just that the amino acids have to line up right and of course we need the right kind of moon. The environment has to be right, so that the amino acids can happily go forth and multiply.
posted by dollyknot at 10:17 AM on October 19, 2008


The universe is 'crowded' with planets.

20 to 60 percent of sun-like stars have planets.

There are at least 1021 stars out there.

And tens of trillions of planets.

It's been about 14 billion years since the big bang.

Earth is about 4.5 billion years old.

First life is at least 3 billion years old.

Complex life only a billion years ago.

Odds are pretty good that there is life out there.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:22 AM on October 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


The universe is 'crowded' with planets.

20 to 60 percent of sun-like stars have planets.

There are at least 1021 stars out there.

And tens of trillions of planets.

It's been about 14 billion years since the big bang.

Earth is about 4.5 billion years old.

First life is at least 3 billion years old.

Complex life only a billion years ago.

Odds are pretty good that there is life out there.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:22 AM on October 19, 2008


(repeated for emphasis? ...sorry!)
posted by five fresh fish at 10:22 AM on October 19, 2008


Odds are pretty good that there is life out there.

Where Is Everybody?
posted by neuron at 12:13 PM on October 19, 2008


It looks like our history has evolved us to go forth and multiply in a way different to non human animals.

Most animals are adapted to their environment, giraffes have a long neck for a reason yer know. We do it barse ackwards, we take the environment and adapt it to our needs, the enormous shame is in doing so, we reduce natures almost miraculous diversity.

So unless we can accept that we have evolved our skill not to steal an environment, but to create one, we are destined to spend the rest of our lives mired in guilt and shame angst.

So ok we head upstairs and start creating a new garden of eden, can we not start putting things back the way we found them here.

Nearly all the ingredients for life exist on the moon already, there appears to be a lot of oxygen on the moon and some hydrogen, put them together you have water + energy.

Taking the idea that humanity is evolving towards planting life in space aka moon, think a million years into the future close to here, life would be all over the place - think about it - the only evidence that there is life out there, is that there is life here.

It is an assumption that because there is life here, there *must* be life out there. The problem is there is very little evidence that life is up there, part from prejudice.

Basically we need to go and look.

So as to find out how common or rare life is in the universe.
posted by dollyknot at 2:26 PM on October 19, 2008


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