Miller-Urey revisited

Years ago (in 1953) there was an experiment to determine how life could have originated on Earth. In a nutshell, Miller and Urey of the University of Chicago simulated the chemical environment of early Earth, added some heat and some electricity, and then — viola! — organic compounds came out. Much more complicated than that, but remember we’re in a nutshell here.

This finding was understandably controversial, especially in creationist circles. For example, many creationists point to flaws in the experiment (a valid concern). Some interpret the experiment differently with sometimes wild conclusions (I say “wild” because the opening sentence to the linked paper is “Contemporary research has failed to provide a viable explanation as to how abiogenesis could have occurred on Earth.” — a little strong perhaps?) to support their own preconceptions. Some flatly deny that the experiment has any scientific value at all.

In my opinion there may be too much stock placed on this one experiment by scientists and creationists alike — we all know one experiment does not an ironclad theory make. And there have been other supporting experiments. Focusing on this one makes it seem like it’s the only gun in the arsenal. However, it is the most elegant/classic and famous of the experiments. Moving on.

Two scientists, Bada (a student of Miller’s) and Scripps of the Institution of Oceanography in California revisited the old samples from the original experiment for re-analysis. Due to better technology to perform the analysis, they were able to find new compounds that Miller and Urey couldn’t originally detect.

Bada also found some information on an experiment that Miller was working on that was never published. Apparently Miller had set up several versions of his chemical flasks, one of which simulated a volcanic environment and produced even more amino acid (organic) compounds.

Why might this be a big deal? Some of the main criticisms of the Miller-Urey experiment involve the composition of the “atmosphere”, stating that the experiment did not accurately represent the atmosphere of early Earth. The new (old?) findings show that the experiment may better replicate atmospheres near erupting volcanoes, lending support to theories that volcanoes may have been a sort of “nursery” for Earth life.

Obviously there needs to be further study (preferably in other labs) on this before this can be 1) a solid argument in support of the volcano nursery theory and 2) further support for the legitimacy of Miller and Urey’s original experiment, but the new analysis suggests that an outright rejection of the Miller-Urey findings may be unfair.

If this information is publicized enough in the creationist circles, I expect that there will be a resurgence in complaints/analyses/punditry surrounding the topic. So skeptic powers activate! Stay on alert.

UPDATE: PZ has also commented on the new findings on his blog.

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