Who Discovered the Origins of Life on Earth and What was the first laboratory re-creation of amino acids?

One of the greatest mysteries has long been: How did life first form on this planet? Theories abound. Bacteria not naturally found on Earth have been found in meteorites recovered in Antarctica. Possibly life here came from some other planet.

For over a hundred years, the most popular scientific theory has been that DNA molecules (life) first evolved from amino acids that were somehow spontaneously created in the soupy chemical mix of the primordial seas. It was just a theory, albeit a popular one, until Stanley Miller re-created the conditions of the early oceans in his lab and showed that amino acids could, indeed, form from this chemical soup.

This was the first laboratory evidence, the first scientific discovery, to support the theory that life on Earth evolved naturally from inorganic compounds in the oceans. It has been a cornerstone of biological sciences ever since.

By 1950 scientists had used a variety of methods to determine that the earth was 4.6 billion years old. However, the oldest fossil records of even tiny bacterial cells were no older than 3.5 billion years. That meant that Earth had spun through space for over a billion years as a lifeless planet before life suddenly emerged and spread across the globe.

How, then, did life start? Most agreed that life had to have emerged from inorganic chemicals. While this theory made sense, no one was sure if it could really have happened.

Through the late 1940s Harold Urey, a chemist at the University of Chicago, teamed with astronomers and cosmologists to try to determine what Earth’s early environment looked like. They determined that Earth’s early atmosphere would chemically resemble the rest of the universe, 90 percent hydrogen, 9 percent helium, with the final 1 percent made up of oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, neon, sulfur, silicon, iron, and argon. Of these helium, argon, and neon don’t react with other elements to form compounds.

Through experiments, Urey determined that the remaining elements, in their likely composition in Earth’s early atmosphere, would have combined to form water, methane, ammonia, and hydrogen sulfide.

Enter Stanley Miller. In 1952 this 32-year-old chemist decided to test the prevailing theory and see if life could be produced from Urey’s mix of chemical compounds. Miller carefully sterilized long sections of glass tubing, flasks, and beakers. He built what looked like a sprawling erector set of support poles in his lab and clamped flasks, beakers, and connecting glass tubes to this structure. He filled one large beaker with sterilized water. He filled other flasks with the three gasses Urey had identified as part of Earth’s early atmosphere, methane, ammonia, and hydrogen sulfide.

Miller slowly boiled the beaker of water so that water vapor would rise into his enclosed “atmosphere” of a labyrinth of glass tubes and beakers. There it mixed with the three other gasses in swirling clouds in a beaker labeled “atmosphere.”

Miller realized he needed an energy source to start his life-creating chemical reaction. Since other scientists had determined that the early atmosphere contained almost continual rolling thunder and lightning storms, Miller decided to create artificial lightning in his atmosphere. He hooked a battery to two electrodes and zapped lightning bolts across the “atmosphere” chamber. A glass pipe led from this chamber and past a cooling coil. Here water vapor recondensed and dripped into a collection beaker that was connected to the original water beaker.

After one week of continual operation of his closed-cycle atmosphere, Miller analyzed the residue of compounds that had settled in the collection beaker of his system. He found that 15 percent of the carbon in his system had now formed into organic compounds. Two percent had formed actual amino acids (the building blocks of proteins and of DNA). In just one short week, Miller had created the building blocks of organic life. Virtually all scientists were amazed at how easy it was for Miller to create amino acids, the building blocks of life.

In 1953 the structure of the DNA molecule was finally discovered. Its structure fit well with how Miller’s amino acid molecules would most likely combine to create longer chains of life. This was another bit of evidence to support the idea that Stanley Miller had discovered of how life on Earth began.

There are 20 types of amino acids. Eight are “essential amino acids” that the human body cannot make and must therefore obtain from food.

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. Born in New York, her work has appeared in the Examiner, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, among others.

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