University and NASA Scientists Simulate Effects of Lightning in Primordial Earth System

51039 Miller Urey Origin of Life on Earth Experiment

The linked article and video give step-by-step instructions on how to conduct Miller-Urey spark discharge experiments.

The manuscript “Conducting Miller-Urey Experiments” was published in Jan 2014 in the Journal of Visualized Experiments. The experiment was a study of the chemical, rather than biological, generation of organic compounds that may have relevance to the origin of life.  Simple gases were introduced into a glass apparatus and subjected to an electric discharge, simulating the effects of lightning in the primordial Earth’s atmosphere-ocean system. The experiment was conducted for one week, after which, the samples collected from it were analyzed for the chemical building blocks of life.

Aaron Burton, a scientist at NASA JSC, Astromaterial Research and Exploration Science Directorate is a co-author, along with others from five other organizations and universities.  With the manuscript, there is a how-to video and article on how to perform the famous spark discharge experiments first performed by Stanley Miller in the 1950s, revealing the formation of amino acids from spark discharges of a reducing atmosphere.  These experiments coupled with the subsequent discovery of extraterrestrial organic molecules in meteorites shortly thereafter sparked the birth of the field of Astrobiology. They are still of interest today because advances in analytical instruments and techniques have greatly improved our ability to analyze the spark discharge products, enhancing our knowledge of chemistry that could have taken place on the primordial Earth.


Parker, E. T., Cleaves, J. H., Burton, A. S., Glavin, D. P., Dworkin, J. P., Zhou, M., et al. Conducting Miller-Urey Experiments. J. Vis. Exp. (83), e51039, doi:10.3791/51039 (2014).

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