The organic chemist performed the first experiments that illuminated how life began
By Kelly Rae Chi | May 24, 2007
Stanley Miller, a chemist who showed that, given the right conditions, simple organic compounds can form life, died this week at the age of 77 following a series of strokes.
Miller performed the experiment that made him famous at the age of 23. "At the end of one week, he had results. Here he is, 23 years old, and he's hit on a big one. In one week," his brother Donald Miller, a retired physical chemist from Livermore, Calif., told The Scientist.
As a graduate student at the University of Chicago in the 1950s, Miller attended a seminar by the late Nobel laureate Harold Urey, who suggested that scientists could create life by combining organic compounds that were present on the primitive Earth. Miller was interested in trying this experiment, and he approached Urey after the talk. Urey discouraged him from pursuing the work, reasoning that "graduate students should do experiments that had a reasonable chance of working, rather than taking a leap into the unknown," according an article by Jeffrey Bada and Antonio Lazcano posted on Miller's Web site.
But Miller persisted, and Urey gave in. Together they sketched a design for the now-famous Miller-Urey spark charge apparatus that imitated the earth's atmosphere. Glass tubes connected two globe-shaped flasks, one containing water to mimic the ocean, and the other containing electrodes to mimic the atmosphere. (Miller took the design to a professional glassblower.)
It took three months to prepare conditions for the experiment. When the apparatus was ready, Miller filled a flask with water and evacuated the air, replacing it with methane, hydrogen, and ammonia. He turned on the electrodes to simulate lightning, and gently heated the water, reasoning that high energy input such as the spark and heating would encourage chemical reactions.
Two days later, the mixture turned yellowish brown, and Miller anxiously stopped the experiments. The mixture contained five different amino acids.
Stanley Miller, then 23, presented the findings in the spring of 1953 to a room full of skeptical scientists during a seminar. He published the findings in Science on May 15, 1953.
"This was a landmark experiment, and it took a lot of courage and determination to do it even though your thesis advisor [Urey] advised you not to do it," said Donald Miller.
Miller was later the first assistant professor of chemistry recruited to work at the University of California, San Diego, where he continued to study the origins of life. He also worked on the natural occurrence of clathrate hydrates, the mechanism of the action of general anesthetics, and the thermodynamics of bioorganic compounds.
He held his graduate students to high standards. "He once told me, if you can't come up with five new ideas about the origin of life per day, you're not doing your job," said Jason Dworkin, an astrobiologist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center who was a graduate student of Miller's in the 1990s.
Though Miller received many honors during his life, he never won a Nobel Prize. "Most of his colleagues thought he should have gotten the Nobel Prize," said Donald Miller. "I know he was nominated more than once. We think he should have had it, but we're biased."
"He was one of those people who was a real inspiration. I think all of us who knew him in a personal way know we've lost a friend and colleague," Jeffrey Bada, former graduate student of Miller's and professor of marine chemistry at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif., told The Scientist.
Kelly Rae Chi
Image: Stanley Miller in 1999, credit: James A. Sugar
Links within this article:
J. Lucentini, "Darkness before the dawn -- of biology," The Scientist, December 1, 2003.
JL Bada, A. Lazcano, "Stanley Miller's 70th birthday."
S. Miller, "A production of amino acids under possible primitive Earth conditions," Science, May 15, 1953.
K. E. Nelson, et al., "Peptide nucleic acids rather than RNA may have been the first genetic molecule. Proc.Nat. Acad. Sci., April 11, 2000.
S. Veggeberg, "Origins-of-life research rescued from scientific fringe," The Scientist, October 26, 1992.
R. Lewis, "New center expands origin of life studies," The Scientist, August 31, 1998.
S. Sandford, et al., "Organics captured from comet 81P/Wild 2 by the Stardust spacecraft," Science, December 15, 2006.
S. Jaffe, "Astrobiology isn't a dirty word anymore," The Scientist, January, 19, 2004.