A Failed Comeback: Efforts to Reclaim Stanley Miller’s Legacy, Part 1 (of 2)

A Failed Comeback: Efforts to Reclaim Stanley Miller’s Legacy, Part 1 (of 2)

Fame can be fleeting. One moment: adorned by fans. The next: all but forgotten. Still, comebacks are possible. Ironically, one of the best ways to revive a floundering career is to die. People somehow seem to place more value on the talents and accomplishments of a movie star or musician post mortem.

The same is sometimes true for scientists.

Stanley Miller: Scientific Superstar

Not many scientists achieve superstar status. But occasionally some do. Take Stanley Miller. Even if you don’t recognize the name, you’ve probably heard about his famous experiment; virtually every introductory biology textbook describes the work he performed in the early 1950s. Miller demonstrated in the chemistry lab that early Earth’s atmosphere could, in principle, generate amino acids, one of life’s key building blocks.

Miller’s work was the first experimental validation of the Oparin-Haldane hypothesis and launched origin-of-life studies as an experimental research program.

To test this hypothesis, Miller filled the confines of a carefully assembled glass apparatus with methane, ammonia, and hydrogen. At that time, scientists thought these gases had existed in early Earth’s atmosphere. Miller also diligently excluded oxygen from the system. A flask of boiling water connected to the glassware introduced water vapor into the headspace and simulated early Earth’s oceans. Miller then passed a continuous electric discharge through the gas mix to replicate lightning. After a few days, organic compounds, including amino acids, formed.

The Road to the Top

Miller conducted his experiment as a young graduate student at the University of Chicago. After hearing Nobel Laureate Harold Urey lecture on the current ideas about the early Earth’s atmosphere, Miller approached the eminent scientist and asked if he could join his lab and attempt to verify the Oparin-Haldane hypothesis. Urey initially declined out of concern for Miller’s future, viewing the work as too risky for a graduate student to pursue.

But Miller persisted and Urey reluctantly agreed to his request. However, in Miller’s best interest, Urey gave him a time limit to show progress on the project. The rest is history. Miller succeeded in generating amino acids and alpha-hydroxy acids from a simple mixture of gases in short order and later determined that the reaction mechanism was closely related to the Strecker Reaction.

In an act of selflessness, Urey insisted that Miller publish the work as the sole author, contrary to standard academic practices. Urey’s name rightfully belonged on the paper submitted to Science, but Urey recognized the significance of Miller’s work and wanted him to be the full beneficiary. If Urey’s name had appeared on the paper, he would have taken all the attention away from Miller.

And what attention Miller received! When published, the results met with instantaneous and worldwide excitement and fanfare. Both the New York Herald Tribune and New York Times wrote about Miller and his discovery on the same day that his paper appeared in Science. A short time later Time, Newsweek, and Life featured articles on Miller. At 23 years of age, Stanley Miller was propelled to worldwide fame.

Most graduate students are drawn to science because of their fascination with nature and a deep desire to understand how it all works. This allure motivates them to work long, hard hours in the laboratory. I am sure this was true for Miller. Still, most young scientists harbor the hope that their research will lead to a breakthrough and propel them to worldwide fame. More often than not, this great expectation is never fulfilled.

Yet Stanley Miller lived the dream, and his success prompted scientists to conduct similar experiments in the quest to discover chemical routes to other critical biomolecules.

But success was fleeting.

The Fall from Grace

Today scientists generally consider the Miller-Urey experiment irrelevant to the origin-of-life question. Current understanding of early Earth’s atmosphere differs significantly from the thinking of the 1950s. Most planetary scientists now believe Earth’s primeval atmosphere consisted of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and water vapor. Laboratory experiments indicate that this gas mixture is incapable of yielding organic materials in Miller-Urey-type experiments.

In May 2003, origin-of-life researchers Jeffrey Bada and Antonio Lazcano, long-time associates of Miller, wrote an essay for Science commemorating the 50th anniversary of the publication of Miller’s initial results.1 They point out that the Miller-Urey experiment has historical, though not scientific, significance in contemporary origin-of-life thought. Bada and Lazcano wrote:

Is the “ prebiotic soup” theory a reasonable explanation for the emergence of life? Contemporary geoscientists tend to doubt that the primitive atmosphere had the highly reducing composition used by Miller in 1953.

In his book Biogenesis, origin-of-life researcher Noam Lahav passes similar judgment:

The prebiotic conditions assumed by Miller and Urey were essentially those of a reducing atmosphere. Under slightly reducing conditions, the Miller-Urey reaction does not produce amino acids, nor does it produce the chemicals that may serve as the predecessors of other important biopolymer building blocks. Thus, by challenging the assumption of a reducing atmosphere, we challenge the very existence of the “prebiotic soup,” with its richness of biologically important organic compounds.

In other words, the experiment that appears in biology textbooks as evidence in favor of an evolutionary explanation for the origin of life has no relevance whatsoever.

It is a difficult thing when one’s life’s work is cast aside. I witnessed the consequences of this first hand at the 2002 meeting of the International Society for the Study of the Origin of Life held in Oaxaca, Mexico. Stanley Miller was confined to a wheelchair at that time and clearly suffering from a debilitating sickness. He appeared feeble and required the constant attention of a caretaker. While other conference participants made their way to the veranda of the conference hotel to enjoy a coffee break or have lunch, Miller remained behind.

During the sessions, a special place was reserved at the front of the room for him. It was sad to see him wheeled in right before each session started, a constant reminder to all in attendance of the struggle he faced. Miller was in the last years of his life.

One particularly heartrending moment came during a session on prebiotic chemistry, when the session chairman pointed out during the introduction that Miller’s work was no longer relevant. He was quick to extend respect to Miller and qualified his assessment by emphasizing the work’s historical value, but the harm had been done. The painful reality was that Miller had devoted his life to understanding the origin of life and, in the end, his most important contribution was no longer regarded as genuinely significant to the current paradigm.

Next week, I’ll discuss recent efforts to revitalize the Miller-Urey experiment’s relevance.

  1. Jeffery L. Bada and Antonio Lazcano, “Prebiotic Soup—Revisiting the Miller Urey Experiment,” Science 300 (May 2, 2003): 745–46.