Well, the answer depends on what we mean by the “origin of life”. One could say that it all started 13.8 billion years ago with the birth of the universe – the “shock and awe” process we call the Big Bang. The impetus that kick-started the processes which led to primitive life-forms may have come from the seeding of our planet with molecules such as amino acids on asteroids, comets, stardust, or other cosmic bodies crashing into our young planet. Perhaps, the jolt to bring inanimate abiotic molecules together to form the precursors to biological molecules could have come from lighting strikes. This process of prebiotic synthesis was first experimentally tested back in 1952 by a graduate student Stanley Miller.
The now famous Miller-Urey experiment was an impressive attempt to show that it was possible to synthesis life’s building blocks by simulating conditions of the early Earth. With nothing more than hydrogen, water, methane and ammonia, Miller was able prepare a concoction of amino acids – the building blocks of everything alive on Earth.
Despite the ease of the experiment and the success of Miller’s attempt which catalysed an entire field of research, Miller had one piece of advice for other scientists: “Don’t do it.”
Turns out that sparking a charge of 60,000 V through a mixture methane, ammonia, and hydrogen, and that too continuously for a week, makes it really likely to end up with a loud bang! Hydrogen in particular has a tendency to ignite and explode with disastrous outcomes when there is an electric current passing through it – remember the Hindenburg airship?
Almost 60 years after the original ground breaking experiment, a team lead by Jeffery Bada, one of Miller’s students, has come up with a new simple and safer protocol which provides a better representation of Earth’s early conditions and yields new insight about life’s beginnings on the planet. For instance, using nitrogen (which does not ignite) instead of hydrogen and 30,000 V discharges, which are turned on and off to mimic the intermittent nature of lightening, reflects the primitive atmosphere more accurately.
Apart from being useful to origin of life researchers, this new protocol makes it easier for high school and undergraduate students around world to begin synthesising life in their labs. If there is one thing the Earth had in its favour which we have not had yet, it would have to be parallel processing.
The origin of life was most likely a global phenomenon that took place simultaneously in the variety of environments hosted on the early Earth. About 4 billion years since life first took hold on the planet, it is time we begin replicating the Earth’s life factory on a high-throughput, networked, 3D synthesising workflow – in other words hundreds of thousands of impressionable students!
Sure, some students will make ‘mistakes’. Some will be more efficient than others and most are likely to end up with some sticky black goo on the sides of their flasks. But that is exactly what took place in the natural system. Thanks to the process of natural selection and evolution, we can be rest assured that our attempt will not be in vain.
Geologists, chemists, biologists, physicists (or whatever you like to call yourself), let’s get behind this call to arms and spread the word about the new Miller-Urey 2.0 protocol. The instructions are published at the Journal of Visualized Experiments. Although the paper is behind a paywall the video has been made freely availably at the Astrobiology Magazine.
Let’s just hope the kids don’t end up making Frankenstein… or worse still another Justin Bieber!