Chemical Analysis of a “Miller-Type” Complex Prebiotic Broth
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In a famous experiment Stanley Miller showed that a large number of organic substances can emerge from sparking a mixture of methane, ammonia and hydrogen in the presence of water (Miller, Science 117:528–529, 1953). Among these substances Miller identified different amino acids, and he concluded that prebiotic events may well have produced many of Life’s molecular building blocks. There have been many variants of the original experiment since, including different gas mixtures (Miller, J Am Chem Soc 77:2351–2361, 1955; Oró Nature 197:862–867, 1963; Schlesinger and Miller, J Mol Evol 19:376–382, 1983; Miyakawa et al., Proc Natl Acad Sci 99:14,628–14,631, 2002). Recently some of Miller’s remaining original samples were analyzed with modern equipment (Johnson et al. Science 322:404–404, 2008; Parker et al. Proc Natl Acad Sci 108:5526–5531, 2011) and a total of 23 racemic amino acids were identified. To give an overview of the chemical variety of a possible prebiotic broth, here we analyze a “Miller type” experiment using state of the art mass spectrometry and NMR spectroscopy. We identify substances of a wide range of saturation, which can be hydrophilic, hydrophobic or amphiphilic in nature. Often the molecules contain heteroatoms, with amines and amides being prominent classes of molecule. In some samples we detect ethylene glycol based polymers. Their formation in water requires the presence of a catalyst. Contrary to expectations, we cannot identify any preferred reaction product. The capacity to spontaneously produce this extremely high degree of molecular variety in a very simple experiment is a remarkable feature of organic chemistry and possibly prerequisite for Life to emerge. It remains a future task to uncover how dedicated, organized chemical reaction pathways may have arisen from this degree of complexity.
KeywordsOrigin to life Complex chemical mixture Mass spectrometry NMR Miller-Urey experiment
We thank Karsten Kruse, Uli Kazmaier, Gerhard Wenz, Michael Veith, Josef Zapp, Hermann Sachdev, Daniel Krug and the Department of Pharmaceutical Biotechnology, Reiner Wintringer and the Institute for Bioanalytical Chemistry and Klaus Schappert. We thank Jörg Schmauch for contributing the SEM measurements and the EDS analysis.
Financial support from the National FT-ICR network (FR 3624 CNRS) for conducting the research is gratefully acknowledged.
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