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Fifty-five years later, new analyses of leftovers from Stanley Miller’s famous ‘primordial soup’ experiment suggest that life could have originated near volcanoes.

After decades of languishing in a cardboard box, unanalyzed vials from a famous chemistry experiment have been brought back to the lab, revealing new clues to the beginnings of life on Earth.

Over 50 years ago, Stanley Miller, then a 23-year-old graduate student, conducted an experiment that is now a staple of biology. Miller and his adviser, Nobel laureate Harold Urey, showed that amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, could be made from a cocktail of basic precursors, the so-called primordial soup.

A research team led by Miller’s former graduate student Jeffrey Bada analyzed leftovers from a variation on this experiment. The researchers report in the Oct. 17 Science that remnants from an experiment conducted with a simulated volcanic environment contain an even larger number of biologically important amino acids.

Urey and Miller re-created what they thought was the atmosphere of early Earth — a stew of methane, ammonia, hydrogen and water — and zapped the contents with an electric shock similar to lightning. After a night of sparking, the vial turned red, then yellow and finally brown, indicating the presence of compounds. Analyses confirmed the presence of a mixture of amino acids, which, at the time, many scientists thought were the basis of life.

“From the historical point of view, the Miller experiment transformed the study of the origin of life in the ’50s into an important research field,” says Pascale Ehrenfreund, an astrobiologist at George Washington University in Washington, D.C…


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