Friday, October 17, 2008

New Data on the Origin of Life

It has long been hypothesized, including by Darwin, that a warm "soup" of basic chemicals could have, by the action of heat and either lightning or volcanic activity, given rise to the first organic molecules.

In 1953, the Miller-Urey experiment tried to replicate in a laboratory the conditions that might have allowed the creation of life. A system of water, methane, ammonia and hydrogen was heated and exposed to sparks. The result was the formation of five amino acids.

Over the years, questions were apparently raised about the conditions in the experiment and about whether 5 amino acids were sufficient to form the basis for life. In the latest issue of Science, a group of researchers found the original vials with residues from the Miller-Urey experiment and went back and reanalyzed them. They focused on a variant where, in addition to the soup, the heat and the spark, there was steam injected into the system, which they thought might better simulate what would happen in a robustly volcanic environment. They analyzed the samples from that variant and found 22 amino acids and 5 amines (whatever those are) had been generated. Although this would not have occurred everywhere, the researchers hypothesize that there could have been a number of microclimates, if you will, like this, and that they have reaffirmed and extended the Miller-Urey findings.

Here is a link to the article in Science: (;322/5900/404?maxtoshow=&HITS=10&hits=10&RESULTFORMAT=&author1=lazcano&andorexacttitle=or&andorexacttitleabs=or&andorexactfulltext=or&searchid=1&FIRSTINDEX=0&sortspec=relevance&fdate=9/1/2008&tdate=10/31/2008&resourcetype=HWCIT,HWELTR).

I heard one of the researchers on Talk of the Nation Science Friday today. Here's a link to the interview:

Greg Priest

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