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Parker, ET, Cleaves HJ, Callahan MP, Dworkin JP, Glavin DP, Lazcano A, Bada JL.  2011.  Prebiotic Synthesis of Methionine and Other Sulfur-Containing Organic Compounds on the Primitive Earth: A Contemporary Reassessment Based on an Unpublished 1958 Stanley Miller Experiment. Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres. 41:201-212.   10.1007/s11084-010-9228-8   AbstractWebsite

Original extracts from an unpublished 1958 experiment conducted by the late Stanley L. Miller were recently found and analyzed using modern state-of-the-art analytical methods. The extracts were produced by the action of an electric discharge on a mixture of methane (CH(4)), hydrogen sulfide (H(2)S), ammonia (NH(3)), and carbon dioxide (CO(2)). Racemic methionine was formed in significant yields, together with other sulfur-bearing organic compounds. The formation of methionine and other compounds from a model prebiotic atmosphere that contained H(2)S suggests that this type of synthesis is robust under reducing conditions, which may have existed either in the global primitive atmosphere or in localized volcanic environments on the early Earth. The presence of a wide array of sulfur-containing organic compounds produced by the decomposition of methionine and cysteine indicates that in addition to abiotic synthetic processes, degradation of organic compounds on the primordial Earth could have been important in diversifying the inventory of molecules of biochemical significance not readily formed from other abiotic reactions, or derived from extraterrestrial delivery.

Parker, ET, Cleaves HJ, Bada JL, Fernandez FM.  2016.  Quantitation of alpha-hydroxy acids in complex prebiotic mixtures via liquid chromatography/tandem mass spectrometry. Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry. 30:2043-2051.   10.1002/rcm.7684   AbstractWebsite

RationaleSpark discharge experiments, like those performed by Stanley Miller in the 1950s, generate complex, analytically challenging mixtures that contain biopolymer building blocks. Recently, -amino acids and -hydroxy acids (AHAs) were subjected to environmental cycling to form simple depsipeptides (peptides with both amide and ester linkages). The synthesis of AHAs under possible primordial environments must be examined to better understand this chemistry. MethodsWe report a direct, quantitative method for AHAs using ultrahigh-performance liquid chromatography and triple quadrupole mass spectrometry. Hexylamine ion-pairing chromatography and selected reaction monitoring detection were combined for the rapid analysis of ten AHAs in a single run. Additionally, prebiotic simulation experiments, including the first-ever reproduction of Miller's 1958 cyanamide spark discharge experiment, were performed to evaluate AHA synthesis over a wide range of possible primitive terrestrial environments. ResultsThe quantitating transition for each of the AHAs targeted in this study produced a limit of detection in the nanomolar concentration range. For most species, a linear response over a range spanning two orders of magnitude was found. The AHAs glycolic acid, lactic acid, malic acid, and -hydroxyglutaric acid were detected in electric discharge experiments in the low micromolar concentration range. ConclusionsThe results of this work suggest that the most abundant building blocks available for prebiotic depsipeptide synthesis would have been glycolic, lactic, malic, and -hydroxyglutaric acids, and their corresponding amino acids, glycine, alanine, and aspartic and glutamic acids. Copyright (c) 2016 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

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.   10.1073/pnas.1019191108   AbstractWebsite

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.

Parker, ET, Zhou MS, Burton AS, Glavin DP, Dworkin JP, Krishnamurthy R, Fernandez FM, Bada JL.  2014.  A plausible simultaneous synthesis of amino acids and simple peptides on the primordial earth. Angewandte Chemie-International Edition. 53:8132-8136.   10.1002/anie.201403683   AbstractWebsite

Following his seminal work in 1953, Stanley Miller conducted an experiment in 1958 to study the polymerization of amino acids under simulated early Earth conditions. In the experiment, Miller sparked a gas mixture of CH4, NH3, and H2O, while intermittently adding the plausible prebiotic condensing reagent cyanamide. For unknown reasons, an analysis of the samples was not reported. We analyzed the archived samples for amino acids, dipeptides, and diketopiperazines by liquid chromatography, ion mobility spectrometry, and mass spectrometry. A dozen amino acids, 10 glycine-containing dipeptides, and 3 glycine-containing diketopiperazines were detected. Miller's experiment was repeated and similar polymerization products were observed. Aqueous heating experiments indicate that Strecker synthesis intermediates play a key role in facilitating polymerization. These results highlight the potential importance of condensing reagents in generating diversity within the prebiotic chemical inventory.

Parker, ET, Cleaves HJ, Callahan MP, Dworkin JP, Glavin DP, Lazcano A, Bada JL.  2011.  Enhanced Synthesis of Alkyl Amino Acids in Miller's 1958 H2S Experiment. Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres. 41:569-574.   10.1007/s11084-011-9253-2   AbstractWebsite

Stanley Miller's 1958 H2S-containing experiment, which included a simulated prebiotic atmosphere of methane (CH4), ammonia (NH3), carbon dioxide (CO2), and hydrogen sulfide (H2S) produced several alkyl amino acids, including the alpha-, beta-, and gamma-isomers of aminobutyric acid (ABA) in greater relative yields than had previously been reported from his spark discharge experiments. In the presence of H2S, aspartic and glutamic acids could yield alkyl amino acids via the formation of thioimide intermediates. Radical chemistry initiated by passing H2S through a spark discharge could have also enhanced alkyl amino acid synthesis by generating alkyl radicals that can help form the aldehyde and ketone precursors to these amino acids. We propose mechanisms that may have influenced the synthesis of certain amino acids in localized environments rich in H2S and lightning discharges, similar to conditions near volcanic systems on the early Earth, thus contributing to the prebiotic chemical inventory of the primordial Earth.

Parker, ET, Cleaves JH, Burton AS, Glavin DP, Dworkin JP, Zhou MS, Bada JL, Fernandez FM.  2014.  Conducting Miller-Urey experiments. Jove-Journal of Visualized Experiments.   10.3791/51039   AbstractWebsite

In 1953, Stanley Miller reported the production of biomolecules from simple gaseous starting materials, using an apparatus constructed to simulate the primordial Earth's atmosphere-ocean system. Miller introduced 200 ml of water, 100 mmHg of H-2, 200 mmHg of CH4, and 200 mmHg of NH3 into the apparatus, then subjected this mixture, under reflux, to an electric discharge for a week, while the water was simultaneously heated. The purpose of this manuscript is to provide the reader with a general experimental protocol that can be used to conduct a Miller-Urey type spark discharge experiment, using a simplified 3 L reaction flask. Since the experiment involves exposing inflammable gases to a high voltage electric discharge, it is worth highlighting important steps that reduce the risk of explosion. The general procedures described in this work can be extrapolated to design and conduct a wide variety of electric discharge experiments simulating primitive planetary environments.

Peltzer, ET, Bada JL.  1978.  Alpha-Hydroxycarboxylic Acids in Murchison Meteorite. Nature. 272:443-444.   10.1038/272443a0   Website
Peltzer, ET, Bada JL.  1981.  Low-Molecular Weight Alpha-Hydroxy Carboxylic and Dicarboxylic-Acids in Reducing Marine-Sediments. Geochimica Et Cosmochimica Acta. 45:1847-1854.   10.1016/0016-7037(81)90015-6   Website
Peltzer, ET, Bada JL, Schlesinger G, Miller SL.  1984.  The chemical conditions on the parent body of the Murchison meteorite: some conclusions based on amino, hydroxy and dicarboxylic acids. Advances in space research : the official journal of the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR). 4:69-74.   10.1016/0273-1177(84)90546-5   AbstractWebsite

Amino and hydroxy acids have been identified in the Murchison meteorite. Their presence is consistent with a synthetic pathway involving aldehydes, hydrogen cyanide and ammonia in an aqueous environment (Strecker-cyanohydrin synthesis). From the various equilibrium and rate constants involved in this synthesis, four independent estimates of the ammonium ion concentrations on the parent body at the time of compound synthesis are obtained; all values are about 2 x 10(-3) M. Succinic acid and beta-alanine have also been detected in the Murchison meteorite. Their presence is consistent with a synthesis from acrylonitrile, hydrogen cyanide and ammonia. Using the equilibrium and rate constants for this synthetic pathway, and the succinic acid/beta-alanine ratio measured in the Murchison meteorite, an estimate of the hydrogen cyanide concentration of 10(-3) to 10(-2) M is obtained. Since hydrogen cyanide hydrolyzes relatively rapidly in an aqueous environment (t1/2 < 10(4) yrs) this high concentration implies a period of synthesis of organic compounds as short as 10(4) years on the Murchison meteorite parent body.

Pereto, J, Bada JL, Lazcano A.  2009.  Charles Darwin and the Origin of Life. Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres. 39:395-406.   10.1007/s11084-009-9172-7   AbstractWebsite

When Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species 150 years ago he consciously avoided discussing the origin of life. However, analysis of some other texts written by Darwin, and of the correspondence he exchanged with friends and colleagues demonstrates that he took for granted the possibility of a natural emergence of the first life forms. As shown by notes from the pages he excised from his private notebooks, as early as 1837 Darwin was convinced that "the intimate relation of Life with laws of chemical combination, & the universality of latter render spontaneous generation not improbable". Like many of his contemporaries, Darwin rejected the idea that putrefaction of preexisting organic compounds could lead to the appearance of organisms. Although he favored the possibility that life could appear by natural processes from simple inorganic compounds, his reluctance to discuss the issue resulted from his recognition that at the time it was possible to undertake the experimental study of the emergence of life.

Poinar, HN, Hoss M, Bada JL, Paabo S.  1996.  Amino acid racemization and the preservation of ancient DNA. Science. 272:864-866.   10.1126/science.272.5263.864   AbstractWebsite

The extent of racemization of aspartic acid, alanine, and leucine provides criteria for assessing whether ancient tissue samples contain endogenous DNA, In samples in which the D/L ratio of aspartic acid exceeds 0.08, ancient DNA sequences could not be retrieved. Paleontological finds from which DNA sequences purportedly millions of years old have been reported show extensive racemization, and the amino acids present are mainly contaminates, An exception is the amino acids in some insects preserved in amber.