Issue Date: May 28, 2007
Origin-Of-Life Researcher Dies
The chemist known as the father of origin-of-life chemistry, Stanley L. Miller, died on May 20 at age 77. Miller was emeritus professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of California, San Diego. He had suffered a series of strokes that began in 1999.
In the 1950s, Miller, working as a graduate student under the late Nobel Laureate Harold C. Urey at the University of Chicago, performed an experiment demonstrating that organic compounds necessary for the origin of life can be generated from simple molecules under the conditions existing on early Earth (Science 1953, 117, 528; J. Am. Chem. Soc. 1955, 77, 2351).
To mimic the ocean/atmosphere system of early Earth, Miller put water and ammonia into a flask with hydrogen and methane gas, boiled the solution, and sparked the contents with an electrical discharge to simulate lightning. Several days later, the solution turned dark brown. Miller analyzed the solution and detected the presence of at least two amino acids. Unconvinced by the results, Miller repeated the experiment and got at least five amino acids—and in large amounts.
"It's one of those experiments that everybody dreams of," says Jeffrey L. Bada, who was a graduate student of Miller's at UC San Diego and is now a professor of marine chemistry at UC San Diego's Scripps Institution of Oceanography. "The first time, it worked.
"It was a huge breakthrough," Bada continues. "Here was experimental verification that making the compounds we associate with life was in fact a possible process that could have occurred on the early Earth."
Miller received a bachelor's degree in chemistry from UC Berkeley in 1951 and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1954.
In addition to his work on the origin of life, Miller investigated the properties of gas hydrates, the mechanism of action of general anesthetics, and the thermodynamics of bioorganic compounds.
He is survived by a brother, a sister-in-law, two nieces, and his caregiver and companion.
Miller was an ACS member for 56 years.
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