Primordial synthesis of amines and amino acids in a 1958 Miller H2S-rich spark discharge experiment

Parker, ET, Cleaves HJ, Dworkin JP, Glavin DP, Callahan M, Aubrey A, Lazcano A, Bada JL.  2011.  Primordial synthesis of amines and amino acids in a 1958 Miller H2S-rich spark discharge experiment. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 108:5526-5531.

Date Published:



carbonaceous chondrites, chemistry, early earth atmosphere, eruptions, life, liquid-chromatography, nitrogen-fixation, ocean, origin, prebiotic chemistry, primitive earth, sulfur, volcano plume chemistry


Archived samples from a previously unreported 1958 Stanley Miller electric discharge experiment containing hydrogen sulfide (H2S) were recently discovered and analyzed using high-performance liquid chromatography and time-of-flight mass spectrometry. We report here the detection and quantification of primary amine-containing compounds in the original sample residues, which were produced via spark discharge using a gaseous mixture of H2S, CH4, NH3, and CO2. A total of 23 amino acids and 4 amines, including 7 organosulfur compounds, were detected in these samples. The major amino acids with chiral centers are racemic within the accuracy of the measurements, indicating that they are not contaminants introduced during sample storage. This experiment marks the first synthesis of sulfur amino acids from spark discharge experiments designed to imitate primordial environments. The relative yield of some amino acids, in particular the isomers of aminobutyric acid, are the highest ever found in a spark discharge experiment. The simulated primordial conditions used by Miller may serve as a model for early volcanic plume chemistry and provide insight to the possible roles such plumes may have played in abiotic organic synthesis. Additionally, the overall abundances of the synthesized amino acids in the presence of H2S are very similar to the abundances found in some carbonaceous meteorites, suggesting that H2S may have played an important role in prebiotic reactions in early solar system environments.