Building Blocks From the Primordial Soup

Forty-four years ago today, American chemist Stanley Miller gave a jolt to the debate on the origins of life with the publication in Science of his famous paper, "A Production of Amino Acids Under Possible Primitive Earth Conditions." Miller tested the hypothesis that life's chemical building blocks were formed when Earth had an atmosphere rich in methane, ammonia, water, and hydrogen. He placed these compounds in a flask, introduced an electric discharge to simulate lightning and ultraviolet light, and analyzed the resulting chemical mixture for the presence of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. After just three and a half months of experimentation, Miller reported in 1953 that three amino acids--glycine, alpha-alanine and beta-alanine--had formed. His work gained a boost 16 years later, when a meteorite that fell in Murchison, Australia, was found to contain the same amino acids.