Prebiotic Chemistry

Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres

, Volume 38, Issue 2, pp 105-115

A Reassessment of Prebiotic Organic Synthesis in Neutral Planetary Atmospheres

  • H. James CleavesAffiliated withGeophysical Laboratory, Carnegie Institution of Washington
  • , John H. ChalmersAffiliated withScripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California at San Diego
  • , Antonio LazcanoAffiliated withFacultad de Ciencias, UNAM
  • , Stanley L. MillerAffiliated withDepartment of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of California at San Diego
  • , Jeffrey L. BadaAffiliated withScripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California at San Diego Email author 

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The action of an electric discharge on reduced gas mixtures such as H2O, CH4 and NH3 (or N2) results in the production of several biologically important organic compounds including amino acids. However, it is now generally held that the early Earth’s atmosphere was likely not reducing, but was dominated by N2 and CO2. The synthesis of organic compounds by the action of electric discharges on neutral gas mixtures has been shown to be much less efficient. We show here that contrary to previous reports, significant amounts of amino acids are produced from neutral gas mixtures. The low yields previously reported appear to be the outcome of oxidation of the organic compounds during hydrolytic workup by nitrite and nitrate produced in the reactions. The yield of amino acids is greatly increased when oxidation inhibitors, such as ferrous iron, are added prior to hydrolysis. Organic synthesis from neutral atmospheres may have depended on the oceanic availability of oxidation inhibitors as well as on the nature of the primitive atmosphere itself. The results reported here suggest that endogenous synthesis from neutral atmospheres may be more important than previously thought.


Prebiotic synthesis Neutral atmosphere Primitive Earth environment Miller–Urey experiment electric discharge