Tech UPTechnologyStanley Miller:

Stanley Miller:

Now 42 years ago, it seemed that science had been able to solve one of the greatest mysteries of nature: the origin of life. At that time, a young researcher named Stanley Miller had the brilliant idea of reproducing in a flask the conditions that supposedly existed on the early Earth. He put some ammonia, methane and hydrogen – the original atmosphere – into the glass container and filled it with water – the oceans. Later, he released small electrical discharges that simulated primitive lightning, while a heater kept the water at the necessary temperature. A few days after that occurrence, the flask began to fill with a viscous and reddish substance. Miller found it to be a paste rich in amino acids, the fundamental building blocks of life responsible for creating proteins.
The euphoria of the moment cooled down over the years, as new findings about the original vital conditions appeared. “The problem of the origin of life – confesses Miller – has manifested itself as something much more difficult to solve than many other scientists and I had thought at first.”
As we now know, the atmosphere of almost 4 billion years ago did not contain as much methane and ammonia as the young Chicago chemist guessed, and it must not have been so favorable for the synthesis of organic compounds.

What do you think the atmosphere was like now when life began?
-We have no evidence of how it could be. We haven’t been able to reproduce it yet. The only thing we have as a model are the rocks that were there then. And from their study we can intuit the conditions in which they developed. Despite the fact that there are many investigations that claim to deny it, I still maintain that more than 3,000 million years ago there was what we call a reduced atmosphere, composed of hydrogen, methane and ammonia. A recent Japanese study has proved me right by discovering how solar particles and cosmic rays can break up water molecules and accelerate the synthesis of free hydrogen and therefore methane and ammonia.

To the best of our knowledge today, life arose in a matter of only hundreds of millions of years, and not billions of years, as was previously believed. Isn’t that a very short period for a miracle like that?
-The business period is now thought to have taken place between 3,500 and 3,800 million years ago. On this last date, microfossils have already been found that show the presence of bacteria. We know that before the Earth was bombarded by asteroids and suffered a terrible volcanic activity, which must have destroyed all kinds of life that existed up to that moment. The bombardment ended 3.8 billion years ago. That gives us a span of 300 million years, roughly. In my opinion, this is more than enough time for the change from the primordial soup to the first bacteria to take place. The evolution of organisms under ideal conditions can be very fast.

What is the best weapon to know the origin of life: the laboratory, space, life itself …?
-To find valid information we can resort to various sources. Chemists try to figure out how amino acids develop in the laboratory and look for clues to what could have happened at the origin of life. The problem with these experiments is that it is very difficult to find compounds that you are not looking for beforehand. Space gives us some information on organic matter and on some conditions similar to those of the origin of life that have been discovered on Saturn and Jupiter. The other interesting source of information is the search for life on Mars. But most of the data on our origin is based on trying to reproduce the chemical conditions and see what happens. This is what is known as prebiotic synthesis.

Perhaps one day we will get to know what the first bricks of life were like, but will we know who or what put them?
-I believe that the primitive building blocks of life, which could be the primitive amino acids, grew in sufficient conditions for them to arise automatically. It would be the same as wondering who has put the snow on a winter morning. Well, snow arises because there are conditions for it. How those amino acids came together and made life grow is what we don’t know yet. In my opinion, everything happened naturally due to the properties of carbon, nitrogen and water. Life arose naturally, without the presence of anything or anyone.

That means that life is a deterministic process. In other words, wherever these phenomena occur, it will inevitably occur …
-Yes absolutely. Although the word deterministic contains a trap. If deterministic means that it is an inescapable conclusion of certain properties of carbon, water and nitrogen, well it is. But keep in mind that there are an immense number of unlikely events that had to be cited. So the same thing will not happen whenever the same conditions are met. On the other hand, it is said that these conditions are very narrow and that it is very difficult for life to arise. But, in my opinion, they are not that narrow. I think that they can happen quite frequently and that there is a reasonable range of possibilities that life could appear anytime, anywhere.

Could chemistry banish the idea of a creator God?
– I do not try to fight the idea of the creator God nor I believe that the people who work in this field do it. It is not our mission. I do not see at all any conflict between belief in God and belief in evolution or the origin of life of a chemical nature. Believers may think that God created the properties of carbon, oxygen, and water. Our areas of knowledge do not contradict each other.

But maybe you felt like a god when you made your discovery, at 23 years old …
-No, far from it.

We will have to believe him, although surely, in his skin, many scientists would have been tempted.

Jorge Mayor

This interview was published in January 1996, in issue 176 of VERY Interesting

 


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