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Miller’s Prebiotic Peptides

New analysis of an unpublished origin-of-life experiment suggests that Stanley Miller may have made simple peptides without ever knowing it

by Matt Davenport
July 7, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 27

Credit: Scripps/UCSD
Miller’s samples from his 1958 peptide-producing experiment.
Photo of vials from Stanley Miller’s experiments.
Credit: Scripps/UCSD
Miller’s samples from his 1958 peptide-producing experiment.

In 1953, University of Chicago graduate student Stanley L. Miller famously demonstrated that zapping gaseous mixtures of methane, ammonia, hydrogen, and water with electric discharges could spawn amino acids in chemical conditions thought to be present before life blossomed on Earth. Scientists have now discovered more to Miller’s work: simple peptides in the detritus of an unpublished spark experiment Miller conducted in 1958 using a primordial-soup simulant containing cyanamide, a reagent that promotes amino acid polymerization (Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2014, DOI: 10.1002/anie.201403683). In a reanalysis of the samples, led by Miller’s former graduate student Jeffrey L. Bada, currently at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and Facundo M. Fernández of Georgia Institute of Technology, the researchers were able to identify more than a dozen different dipeptides and three tripeptides using liquid chromatography/mass spectrometry. The team corroborated the results by rerunning the classic spark experiment themselves, guided by Miller’s lab notebook. Although the research demonstrates that this pathway to peptides is possible, it remains unclear how likely this reaction would have been on the prebiotic planet.


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