Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Zapped Into Existence: The 1953 Miller-Urey Experiments

Hola SuperForesters!

Jackson here.

I was just doing some reading up on the ol' Wikipedia and came across a very interesting entry about the '53 Miller-Urey experiments.

Unfamiliar? In a nutshell: In 1953, two scientists named Stanley Miller and Harold Urey performed an experiment at the University of Chicago. The aim of the experiment was to see if non-organic (read: dead) compounds could be coaxed into forming amino acids, which are the building blocks of all proteins (read: life.)

So they built an apparatus that contained some very basic chemicals: "water (H2O), methane (CH4), ammonia (NH3), hydrogen (H2), and carbon monoxide (CO). The chemicals were all sealed inside a sterile array of glass tubes and flasks connected together in a loop, with one flask half-full of liquid water and another flask containing a pair of electrodes."

Next, "The liquid water was heated to induce evaporation, sparks were fired between the electrodes to simulate lightning through the atmosphere and water vapor, and then the atmosphere was cooled again so that the water could condense and trickle back into the first flask in a continuous cycle."

Got that? Fill a sterile container with some basic chemicals, heat it up, and zap it with electricity.

This was done to re-create conditions like those found on an early version of Earth.

And what happened when they ran the experiment?

"At the end of one week of continuous operation Miller and Urey observed that as much as 10–15% of the carbon within the system was now in the form of organic compounds. Two percent of the carbon had formed amino acids that are used to make proteins in living cells, with glycine as the most abundant. Sugars, lipids, and some of the building blocks for nucleic acids were also formed.

In an interview, Stanley Miller stated: "Just turning on the spark in a basic pre-biotic experiment will yield 11 out of 20 amino acids."

Did y'all get that? Zap a flask of water and you get the structures that can eventually evolve to become plankton, crabs, fish, dinosaurs, Henry Kissinger and the "Leave Britney Alone!" Guy.

What's better is that this experiment has been repeated many times, with the same results. And even better is the fact that just recently, "... a group of scientists examined 11 vials left over from Miller's experiments of the early 1950s. In addition to the classic experiment, reminiscent of Charles Darwin's envisioned "warm little pond", Miller had also performed more experiments, including one with conditions similar to those of volcanic eruptions. This experiment had a nozzle spraying a jet of steam at the spark discharge. By using high-performance liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry, the group found more organic molecules than Miller had. Interestingly, they found that the volcano-like experiment had produced the most organic molecules, 22 amino acids, 5 amines and many hydroxylated molecules, which could have been formed by hydroxyl radicals produced by the electrified steam."

So, our more recent technology uncovered the fact that the Miller-Urey experiment had produced DOUBLE the amount of amino acids then they had initially realized.

What does all this mean?

We, the living creatures of Earth, are the children of water, volcanoes, and lightning.

Have a wonderful day!

Love to all,


P.S. If you're into it, here's a pdf of the 1953 Miller-Urey write up.

Go, doctors Miller and Urey! You're Science-tastic!

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