Following his seminal work in 1953, Stanley Miller conducted an experiment in 1958 to study the polymerization of amino acids under simulated early Earth conditions. In the experiment, Miller sparked a gas mixture of CH4, NH3, and H2O, while intermittently adding the plausible prebiotic condensing reagent cyanamide. For unknown reasons, an analysis of the samples was not reported. We analyzed the archived samples for amino acids, dipeptides, and diketopiperazines by liquid chromatography, ion mobility spectrometry, and mass spectrometry. A dozen amino acids, 10 glycine-containing dipeptides, and 3 glycine-containing diketopiperazines were detected. Miller's experiment was repeated and similar polymerization products were observed. Aqueous heating experiments indicate that Strecker synthesis intermediates play a key role in facilitating polymerization. These results highlight the potential importance of condensing reagents in generating diversity within the prebiotic chemical inventory.
In 1953, Stanley Miller reported the production of biomolecules from simple gaseous starting materials, using an apparatus constructed to simulate the primordial Earth's atmosphere-ocean system. Miller introduced 200 ml of water, 100 mmHg of H2, 200 mmHg of CH4, and 200 mmHg of NH3 into the apparatus, then subjected this mixture, under reflux, to an electric discharge for a week, while the water was simultaneously heated. The purpose of this manuscript is to provide the reader with a general experimental protocol that can be used to conduct a Miller-Urey type spark discharge experiment, using a simplified 3 L reaction flask. Since the experiment involves exposing inflammable gases to a high voltage electric discharge, it is worth highlighting important steps that reduce the risk of explosion. The general procedures described in this work can be extrapolated to design and conduct a wide variety of electric discharge experiments simulating primitive planetary environments.
1953 was a banner year for biological chemistry: The double helix structure of DNA was published by Watson and Crick, Sangers group announced the first amino acid sequence of a protein (insulin) and the synthesis of key biomolecules using simulated primordial Earth conditions has demonstrated by Miller. Millers studies in particular transformed the study of the origin of life into a respectable field of inquiry and established the basis of prebiotic chemistry, a field of research that investigates how the components of life as we know it can be formed in a variety of cosmogeochemical environments. In this review, I cover the continued advances in prebiotic syntheses that Millers pioneering work has inspired. The main focus is on recent state-of-the-art analyses carried out on archived samples of Millers original experiments, some of which had never before been analyzed, discovered in his laboratory material just before his death in May 2007. One experiment utilized a reducing gas mixture and an apparatus configuration (referred to here as the "volcanic" apparatus) that could represent a water-rich volcanic eruption accompanied by lightning. Another included H(2)S as a component of the reducing gas mixture. Compared to the limited number of amino acids Miller identified, these new analyses have found that over 40 different amino acids and amines were synthesized, demonstrating the potential robust formation of important biologic compounds under possible cosmogeochemical conditions. These experiments are suggested to simulate long-lived volcanic island arc systems, an environment that could have provided a stable environment for some of the processes thought to be involved in chemical evolution and the origin of life. Some of the alternatives to the Miller-based prebiotic synthesis and the "primordial soup" paradigm are evaluated in the context of their relevance under plausible planetary conditions.
Mineral-assisted thermal decomposition of formamide (HCONH(2)) is a heavily studied model prebiotic reaction that has offered valuable insights into the plausible pathways leading to the chemical building blocks of primordial informational polymers. To date, most efforts have focused on the analysis of formamide reaction products released in solution, although several studies have examined the role of mineral catalysts in promoting this chemistry. We show here that the direct investigation of reactive mineral surfaces by desorption electrospray ionization-mass spectrometry imaging (DESI-MSI) gives a new perspective on the important role of the mineral surface in the formation of reaction products. As a proof-of-principle example, we show that DESI-MSI allows interrogation of the molecular products produced on heterogeneous granite samples with minimal sample preparation. Purine and pyrimidine nucleobases and their derivatives are successfully detected by DESI-MSI, with a strong correlation of the spatial product distribution with the mineral microenvironment. To our knowledge, this study is the first application of DESI-MSI to the study of complex and porous mineral surfaces and their roles in chemical evolution. This DESI-MSI approach is generally applicable to a wide range of reactions or other processes involving minerals.
Stanley Millers 1958 H(2)S-containing experiment, which included a simulated prebiotic atmosphere of methane (CH(4)), ammonia (NH(3)), carbon dioxide (CO(2)), and hydrogen sulfide (H(2)S) produced several alkyl amino acids, including the ?-, ?-, and ?-isomers of aminobutyric acid (ABA) in greater relative yields than had previously been reported from his spark discharge experiments. In the presence of H(2)S, aspartic and glutamic acids could yield alkyl amino acids via the formation of thioimide intermediates. Radical chemistry initiated by passing H(2)S through a spark discharge could have also enhanced alkyl amino acid synthesis by generating alkyl radicals that can help form the aldehyde and ketone precursors to these amino acids. We propose mechanisms that may have influenced the synthesis of certain amino acids in localized environments rich in H(2)S and lightning discharges, similar to conditions near volcanic systems on the early Earth, thus contributing to the prebiotic chemical inventory of the primordial Earth.
We examine the stability of three key components needed to establish an RNA World under a range of potential conditions present on the early earth. The stability of ribose, cytosine, and the phosphodiester bond are estimated at different pH values and temperatures by extrapolating available experimental data. The conditions we have chosen range from highly acidic or alkaline hydrothermal vents, to the milder conditions in a primordial ocean at a range of atmospheric CO(2) partial pressures.
Archived samples from a previously unreported 1958 Stanley Miller electric discharge experiment containing hydrogen sulfide (H(2)S) were recently discovered and analyzed using high-performance liquid chromatography and time-of-flight mass spectrometry. We report here the detection and quantification of primary amine-containing compounds in the original sample residues, which were produced via spark discharge using a gaseous mixture of H(2)S, CH(4), NH(3), and CO(2). A total of 23 amino acids and 4 amines, including 7 organosulfur compounds, were detected in these samples. The major amino acids with chiral centers are racemic within the accuracy of the measurements, indicating that they are not contaminants introduced during sample storage. This experiment marks the first synthesis of sulfur amino acids from spark discharge experiments designed to imitate primordial environments. The relative yield of some amino acids, in particular the isomers of aminobutyric acid, are the highest ever found in a spark discharge experiment. The simulated primordial conditions used by Miller may serve as a model for early volcanic plume chemistry and provide insight to the possible roles such plumes may have played in abiotic organic synthesis. Additionally, the overall abundances of the synthesized amino acids in the presence of H(2)S are very similar to the abundances found in some carbonaceous meteorites, suggesting that H(2)S may have played an important role in prebiotic reactions in early solar system environments.
We critically examine the proposal by Wächtershäuser (Prokaryotes 1:275-283, 2006a, Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci 361: 787-1808, 2006b) that putative transition metal binding sites in protein components of the translation machinery of hyperthermophiles provide evidence of a direct relationship with the FeS clusters of pyrite and thus indicate an autotrophic origin of life in volcanic environments. Analysis of completely sequenced cellular genomes of Bacteria, Archaea and Eucarya does not support the suggestion by Wächtershäuser (Prokaryotes 1:275-283, 2006a, Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci 361: 787-1808, 2006b) that aminoacyl-tRNA synthetases and ribosomal proteins bear sequence signatures typical of strong covalent metal bonding whose absence in mesophilic species reveals a process of adaptation towards less extreme environments.
The RNA World is generally thought to have been an important link between purely prebiotic (>3.7 Ga) chemistry and modern DNA/protein biochemistry. One concern about the RNA World hypothesis is the geochemical stability of ribose, the sugar moiety of RNA. Prebiotic stabilization of ribose by solutions associated with borate minerals, notably colemanite, ulexite, and kernite, has been proposed as one resolution to this difficulty. However, a critical unresolved issue is whether borate minerals existed in sufficient quantities on the primitive Earth, especially in the period when prebiotic synthesis processes leading to RNA took place. Although the oldest reported colemanite and ulexite are 330 Ma, and the oldest reported kernite, 19 Ma, boron isotope data and geologic context are consistent with an evaporitic borate precursor to 2400-2100 Ma borate deposits in the Liaoning and Jilin Provinces, China, as well as to tourmaline-group minerals at 3300-3450 Ma in the Barberton belt, South Africa. The oldest boron minerals for which the age of crystallization could be determined are the metamorphic tourmaline species schorl and dravite in the Isua complex (metamorphism between ca. 3650 and ca. 3600 Ma). Whether borates such as colemanite, ulexite and kernite were present in the Hadean (>4000 Ma) at the critical juncture when prebiotic molecules such as ribose required stabilization depends on whether a granitic continental crust had yet differentiated, because in its absence we see no means for boron to be sufficiently concentrated for borates to be precipitated.
Original extracts from an unpublished 1958 experiment conducted by the late Stanley L. Miller were recently found and analyzed using modern state-of-the-art analytical methods. The extracts were produced by the action of an electric discharge on a mixture of methane (CH(4)), hydrogen sulfide (H(2)S), ammonia (NH(3)), and carbon dioxide (CO(2)). Racemic methionine was formed in significant yields, together with other sulfur-bearing organic compounds. The formation of methionine and other compounds from a model prebiotic atmosphere that contained H(2)S suggests that this type of synthesis is robust under reducing conditions, which may have existed either in the global primitive atmosphere or in localized volcanic environments on the early Earth. The presence of a wide array of sulfur-containing organic compounds produced by the decomposition of methionine and cysteine indicates that in addition to abiotic synthetic processes, degradation of organic compounds on the primordial Earth could have been important in diversifying the inventory of molecules of biochemical significance not readily formed from other abiotic reactions, or derived from extraterrestrial delivery.
There is little consensus regarding the plausibility of organic synthesis in submarine hydrothermal systems (SHSs) and its possible relevance to the origin of life. The primary reason for the persistence of this debate is that most experimental high temperature and high-pressure organic synthesis studies have neglected important geochemical constraints with respect to source material composition. We report here the results of experiments exploring the potential for amino acid synthesis at high temperature from synthetic seawater solutions of varying composition. The synthesis of amino acids was examined as a function of temperature, heating time, starting material composition and concentration. Using very favorable reactant conditions (high concentrations of reactive, reduced species), small amounts of a limited set of amino acids are generated at moderate temperature conditions ( approximately 125-175 degrees C) over short heating times of a few days, but even these products are significantly decomposed after exposure times of approximately 1 week. The high concentration dependence observed for these synthetic reactions are demonstrated by the fact that a 10-fold drop in concentration results in orders of magnitude lower yields of amino acids. There may be other synthetic mechanisms not studied herein that merit investigation, but the results are likely to be similar. We conclude that although amino acids can be generated from simple likely environmentally available precursors under SHS conditions, the equilibrium at high temperatures characteristic of SHSs favors net amino acid degradation rather than synthesis, and that synthesis at lower temperatures may be more favorable.
When Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species 150 years ago he consciously avoided discussing the origin of life. However, analysis of some other texts written by Darwin, and of the correspondence he exchanged with friends and colleagues demonstrates that he took for granted the possibility of a natural emergence of the first life forms. As shown by notes from the pages he excised from his private notebooks, as early as 1837 Darwin was convinced that "the intimate relation of Life with laws of chemical combination, & the universality of latter render spontaneous generation not improbable". Like many of his contemporaries, Darwin rejected the idea that putrefaction of preexisting organic compounds could lead to the appearance of organisms. Although he favored the possibility that life could appear by natural processes from simple inorganic compounds, his reluctance to discuss the issue resulted from his recognition that at the time it was possible to undertake the experimental study of the emergence of life.
Despite being plagued by heavily degraded DNA in palaeontological remains, most studies addressing the state of DNA degradation have been limited to types of damage which do not pose a hindrance to Taq polymerase during PCR. Application of serial qPCR to the two fractions obtained during extraction (demineralization and protein digest) from six permafrost mammoth bones and one partially degraded modern elephant bone has enabled further insight into the changes which endogenous DNA is subjected to during diagenesis. We show here that both fractions exhibit individual qualities in terms of the prevailing type of DNA (i.e. mitochondrial versus nuclear DNA) as well as the extent of damage, and in addition observed a highly variable ratio of mitochondrial to nuclear DNA among the six mammoth samples. While there is evidence suggesting that mitochondrial DNA is better preserved than nuclear DNA in ancient permafrost samples, we find the initial DNA concentration in the bone tissue to be as relevant for the total accessible mitochondrial DNA as the extent of DNA degradation post-mortem. We also evaluate the general applicability of indirect measures of preservation such as amino-acid racemization, bone crystallinity index and thermal age to these exceptionally well-preserved samples.
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