Courtesy of Preston Huey, © 2003 AAAS
LIFE IN THE HOT SEAT: In one hypothetical model, an alkaline hydrothermal solution of constant temperature and pH may have convectively pumped through a confining porous mound of precipitated clays, hydroxides such as Mg(OH)2, and iron nickel sulfides into a cool and acidulous ocean.

In 1953 a University of Chicago graduate student, Stanley Miller, shot electric sparks into an apparatus that circulated water, methane, ammonia, and hydrogen in a closed system. After a week, he identified organic compounds, including amino acids, in the turbid red liquid that resulted.1 The experiment galvanized research into life's origins. Yet for decades afterward, the work has proceeded in fits and starts, as scientists struggled to explain how building-block molecules, scattered throughout a "primordial soup" of the ancient seas, might have gathered themselves into something resembling life.

Fifty years later, researchers see new reasons for...

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