Primordial Soup's On: Scientists Repeat Evolution's Most Famous Experiment

In the March 28, 2007 edition of Scientific American, Douglas Fox reports on the results of renewed experiments based on the original work by Stanley Miller.

Miller became famous for his experiments with Urey where they used a sparking device to replicate early earth. Their experiment produced a brown mixture rich in amino acids. In later experiments, which more closely matched the actual composition of the early earth, Miller found that the amino acids were quickly destroyed.

Not surprisingly, creationists quickly jumped on these results to argue that evolution must be wrong, and by extension, creationism was correct.

Such arguments of course are extremely vulnerable to scientific knowledge and in this case, things are not much different.

Jeffrey Bada decided to repeat the experiments with a twist

Bada discovered that the reactions were producing chemicals called nitrites, which destroy amino acids as quickly as they form. They were also turning the water acidic—which prevents amino acids from forming. Yet primitive Earth would have contained iron and carbonate minerals that neutralized nitrites and acids. So Bada added chemicals to the experiment to duplicate these functions. When he reran it, he still got the same watery liquid as Miller did in 1983, but this time it was chock-full of amino acids. Bada presented his results this week at the American Chemical Society annual meeting in Chicago.

Scientists are excited by these new findings as they provide another source for primordial chemicals, in addition to those delivered by meteorites.

“It’s important work,” says Christopher McKay, a planetary scientist at NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif. “This is a move toward more realism in terms of what the conditions were on early Earth.”

Most researchers believe that the origin of life depended heavily on chemicals delivered to Earth by comets and meteorites. But if the new work holds up, it could tilt that equation, says Christopher Chyba, an astrobiologist at Princeton University. “That would be a terrific result for understanding the origin of life,” he says, “and for understanding the prospects for life elsewhere.”

But James Ferris, a prebiotic chemist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., doubts that atmospheric electricity could have been the only source of organic molecules. “You get a fair amount of amino acids,” he says. “What you don’t get are things like building blocks of nucleic acids.” Meteors, comets or primordial ponds of hydrogen cyanide would still need to provide those molecules.

Another creationist Icon (strawman) seems to have bitten the dust.