Prebiotic Soup and Organic Change

Stanley Miller with Experiment, see

In the 1950s, Stanley Miller did some experiments which aimed to simulate atmospheric conditions on a lifeless primordial Earth. His theory was that organic compounds could come from inorganic processes, and he was mostly right. His experiments with boiling water, gases and electricity (simulating lightning) created amino acids which are commonly found in proteins. Miller died last year, and a former student of his Jeffrey Bada inherited some of his belongings.

Bada has just published findings, using current techniques, that even more types of amino acids at higher yields were created by these experiments. So the experiment shows that basic abundant gases (methane, ammonia, hydrogen), heat, water and electricity are enough to create compounds that may be the origin of life on Earth.

I always found Miller’s experiments fascinating, and this is a new twist. It’s tempting to think that over thousands or even millions of years, life gradually emerged from specific chemical conditions on early Earth. Many more millions of years of evolution took single celled bacteria to multicellular lifeforms to more complex aquatic life, and so on. Each step very simple, but the overall result over very long time periods gives rise to breathtaking complexity.

In my work too, I believe in gradual improvement and building up over time rather than in sudden radical overhaul, sudden gain, and spurious complexity that just doesn’t add up. Complexity cannot come quickly and be natural and sustainable too. How many websites just don’t make sense because there is no simplicity behind all those complex options, offers and links to click? I liked the approach described by the Stack Overflow team on a recent podcast: Jeff Atwood said that if he didn’t do a little something to improve the site every day, he didn’t feel like he’d got anything done that day.


  1. helen white

    1/11/2008 at 3:07 pm

    I understand that all these experiments show what could and maybe did happen but are you sure there wasn’t just perhaps an alien input? What a huge industry that has built up around this speculation could do without is scientific proof that no alien input was necessary or proof against this being the case! For myself, I still like to think that the “race of giants” referred to in ancient writings were perhaps from another galaxy and had come in peace to “share” or “teach” and spread knowledge especially of lifting those great 200 ton stones seen around the ancient sites!
    Lovely few days as usual in Argenteuil, speak to you soon.

  2. fruey

    23/11/2008 at 3:40 pm


    Well if you consider that elements that were required for life to evolve on Earth probably came from elsewhere, you have to be right. It’s very likely that the mixture of elements and luck required to create life came from a disparate range of different places. To go from there to imagine that intelligent life developed elsewhere and had a hand in creation of life on Earth is a big step, and rather leaves us asking the question as to why they haven’t come back.

    Sorry for the late reply, didn’t get email notification of this comment.


  3. fella,

    have you looked at all at the sweet crystal hypothesis (or back a step – cairns-smith 7 clus to the origin of life). very interesting (though a tad unsatisfactory in covering the lack of evidence for his proposed origins). Sweet crystals as “naked replicators” exhibiting 2 of the 3 characteistics for evolutionary life forms (replication and mutation – just missing evolutionary filters) and nicely covering dna as a controlling molecule to the organic “algae” that surrounds it.

    have it. (Now following your tweet fella!)

  4. fruey

    17/2/2009 at 11:01 am


    Pleasure to see you here mate!

    I don’t know enough about inorganic / organic chemistry… you are clearly better placed than me to comment on that. I can “get” amino acid formation, but crystals and polymer chains gets a bit lost on me, though on reading the origin of life I get some inkling. Need to buff up a bit maybe.

    Get in.


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