The Stanley Miller Experiment

In 1953, Stanley L. Miller and Harold C. Urey, working at the University of Chicago,
conducted an experiment which would change the way that modern science
approaches the investigation into the origin of life. The two scientists performed a
now classic experiment demonstrating how inorganic elements, under the right
conditions, could combine to form some of the precursors of organic chemicals.  

Stanley Miller, a graduate researcher, did not set out to show how life was created by
inanimate, inorganic matter.  He was actually performing experiments designed to
find out how lightning (reproduced by electric discharges) might have affected the
Earth’s primitive atmosphere.  He sent these electric discharges through a flask
containing some of the gasses that would have been abundant three to four billion
years ago.  These included methane, ammonia, hydrogen and water (just imagine
three out of the four gasses that they used to simulate the beginning stages of
creation are highly noxious to humans).  

The experimenters repeatedly condensed and vaporized the mixture, for a full week
and found, using chromatography, that at the end of seven days about 15% of the
carbon had formed organic compounds.  Upon further examination they found that
about 2% of the carbon in the experiment had formed the fundamental building
blocks of all proteins and thus of all cellular life… amino acids.

Charles Darwin predicted, very generally that the abiotic production of simple
organic molecules must have been the initial step in the creation of life.  Darwin was
very careful not to publish his speculations on the topic of creation though.  He did
write a letter to a friend in 1871 revealing his insight into the potential of abiotic,
chemical processes:

"It has often been said that all the conditions for the first production of a living
organism are now present which could have ever been present but if and oh what a
big if, we could conceive in some warm little pond with all sorts of ammonia and
phosphoric salts, light, heat, electricity, etc. present, that a protein compound was
chemically formed, ready to undergo still more complex changes. At the present day,
such matter would be instantly devoured or absorbed which would not have been the
case before living creatures were formed."

Miller and Urey’s findings influenced a multitude of experiments which have been
attempting to detail, very specifically, how cells could be formed from amino acids.  
The pair did more than just prove Darwin right, they also influenced the creation of
new fields of research.  If life could be created on the Earth by chemical processes,
couldn’t life be generated on Earth-like planets outside of our solar system?  The
disciplines of astrobiology, exobiology, radio astronomy and special government
affiliated groups like S.E.T.I. (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) attempt to
assess the probability for, and the origin, nature and prevalence of life elsewhere in
the universe.

This experiment was a major interdisciplinary breakthrough as it offered an
explanation for the biological in terms of the chemical and the physical.  Along with
creating a definite link between these three areas the experiment also succeeded in
allowing for a more ambitious philosophical understanding of the human condition.

Abiotic: adj.
Nonliving. The abiotic factors of the environment include light, temperature, and
atmospheric gases.

Amino Acid: noun
An organic compound that has the ability to link with other amino acids to form
proteins.  They can also function as chemical messengers in the body and as
intermediates in metabolism.

Noxious: adj.
Harmful to living things; injurious to health.
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Interdisciplinary Learning