Prebiotic chemistry and the origin of life: The 1953 Miller experiment
Antonio Lazcano, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México
"Aula Magna Enric Casassas", Physics Faculty
Abstract: Following the 1938 publication of the English translation of A.I. Oparin’s classic book The Origin of Life, there was considerable interest in the study of the emergence of life. However, the start of the Second World War led to a radical change in the goals and efforts of the scientific community, and issues like prebiotic chemistry and the origins of life were put aside until the end of the conflict.
Following a seminar at the Department of Chemistry of the University of Chicago, Harold C. Urey was approached by Stanley L. Miller, a young graduate student in search of an adviser and a subject for his PhD thesis. Although he was somewhat reluctant to accept him as a student, Miller entered Urey’s laboratory and rapidly came up with an experimental design to study the effects of electric discharges over a mixture of methane, ammonia, hydrogen and water vapor which was intended as a simulation of Oparin’s reduced atmosphere. After one week the results were surprising: Miller had achieved the abiotic synthesis of amino acids, hydroxy acids, urea, and several other compounds. The results of the experiment appeared in Science three weeks after the publication of the Watson-Crick DNA double helix model, and inaugurated a new era in the study of the origins of life. In the seminar I will address the complex history of Miller’s paper, the comparison of its products to the understanding of cosmic organic chemistry and our current understanding of its significance to the issue of the origins of life.