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Primordial soup returns to life: vials from '50s hold hints of volcanic birth for amino acids.

After decades of languishing in a cardboard box, unanalyzed vials from a famous chemistry experiment have been brought back to the lab, revealing new clues to the beginnings of life on Earth.

Over 50 years ago, 23-year-old graduate student Stanley Miller conducted an experiment with his adviser, Nobel laureate Harold Urey. They showed that amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, could be made from a cocktail of basic chemical precursors, the "primordial soup."

Now a team led by Miller's former graduate student Jeffrey Bada reports that remnants from a variation of that experiment, designed to simulate a volcanic environment, contain even more biologically important amino acids.

Urey and Miller re-created what they thought was the atmosphere of early Earth--a stew of methane, ammonia, hydrogen and water--and zapped the contents with an electric shock similar to lightning. After a night of sparking, the vial turned red, then yellow and finally brown. Analyses confirmed the presence of amino acids, which were a major focus in the search for the origins of life.


Miller published his results in Science in 1953. Bada's team reported the new results in the Oct. 17 Science.

Before Miller died last year, the contents of his lab, including experiments and notebooks, were moved to Bada's laboratory at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif. When Bada heard of the existence of the vials, he began digging through the boxes.

Bada and biochemist Adam Johnson of Indiana University in Bloomington discovered that some of the vials' con tents were created in the presence of a stream of water vapor, which simulated the local environment of a volcano. The team reconstituted and analyzed the dried material in these vials, identifying 10 types of amino acids not found in the original experiment.

That result makes it plausible that a shallow primeval tide pool tucked into the side of a volcano and a fortuitous bolt of lightning could have led to an abundance of amino acids, Bada says.

"The local volcanic scenario is clearly more favorable for synthesis than the classical version of this experiment," says Alan Schwartz of Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands.

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Author:Sanders, Laura
Publication:Science News
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 8, 2008
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