A classic experiment in molecular biology and genetics, the Miller-Urey experiment, established that the conditions that existed in Earth's primitive atmosphere were sufficient to produce amino acids, the subunits of proteins comprising and required by living organisms. In essence, the Miller-Urey experiment fundamentally established that Earth's primitive atmosphere was capable of producing the building blocks of life from inorganic materials.
In 1953, University of Chicago researchers Stanley L. Miller and Harold C. Urey set up an experimental investigation into the molecular origins of life. Their innovative experimental design consisted of the introduction of the molecules thought to exist in early Earth's primitive atmosphere into a closed chamber. Methane (CH4), hydrogen (H2), and ammonia (NH3) gases were introduced into a moist environment above a water-containing flask. To simulate primitive lightning discharges, Miller supplied the system with electrical current.
After a few days, Miller observed that the flask contained organic compounds and that some of these compounds were the amino acids that serve as the essential building blocks of protein. Using chromatological analysis, Miller continued his experimental observations and confirmed the ready formation of amino acids, hydroxy acids, and other organic compounds.
Although the discovery of amino acid formation was of tremendous significance in establishing that the raw materials of proteins were easy to obtain in a primitive Earth environment, there remained a larger question as to the nature of the origin of genetic materials—in particular the origin of DNA and RNA molecules.
Continuing on the seminal work of Miller and Urey, in the early 1960s Juan Oro discovered that the nucleotide base adenine could also be synthesized under primitive Earth conditions. Oro used a mixture of ammonia and hydrogen cyanide (HCN) in a closed aqueous enviroment.
Oro's findings of adenine, one of the four nitrogenous bases that combine with a phosphate and a sugar (deoxyribose for DNA and ribose for RNA) to form the nucleotides represented by the genetic code: (adenine (A), thymine (T), guanine (G), and cytosine (C). In RNA molecules, the nitrogenous base uracil (U) substitutes for thymine. Adenine is also a fundamental component of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), a molecule important in many genetic and cellular functions.
Subsequent research provided evidence of the formation of the other essential nitrogenous bases needed to construct DNA and RNA.
The Miller-Urey experiment remains the subject of scientific debate. Scientists continue to explore the nature and composition of Earth's primitive atmosphere and thus, continue to debate the relative closeness of the conditions of the Miller-Urey experiment (e.g., whether or not Miller's application of electrical current supplied relatively more electrical energy than did lightning in the primitive atmosphere). Subsequent experiments using alternative stimuli (e.g., ultraviolet light) also confirm the formation of amino acids from the gases present in the Miller-Urey experiment. During the 1970s and 1980s, astrobiologists and astrophyicists, including American physicist Carl Sagan, asserted that ultraviolet light bombarding the primitive atmosphere was far more energetic that even continual lightning discharges. Amino acid formation is greatly enhanced by the presence of an absorber of ultraviolet radiation such as the hydrogen sulfide molecules (H2S) also thought to exist in the early Earth atmosphere.
Although the establishment of the availability of the fundamental units of DNA, RNA and proteins was a critical component to the investigation of the origin of biological molecules and life on Earth, the simple presence of these molecules is a long step from functioning cells. Scientists and evolutionary biologists propose a number of methods by which these molecules could concentrate into a crude cell surrounded by a primitive membrane.
Bonner, J. T. First Signals: The Evolution of Multicellular Development. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.
Lodish, H., et. al. Molecular Cell Biology. 4th ed. New York: W. H. Freeman & Co., 2000.
Kerridge J.F. "Formation and Processing of Organics in the Early Solar System." Space Sci Rev. 90(1999):275-88.
Miller SL, Urey HC, Oro J. "Origin of Organic Compounds on the Primitive Earth and in Meteorites." J Mol Evol. 9 (1976):59-72.
K. Lee Lerner
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