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The Spark of Life

Where Did Organic Molecules Come From?

Co Authors:

Annie Prud’homme-Genereux
Continuing Studies and Executive Education
Capilano University

Nicole F. Magill
Life Sciences
Quest University Canada

Tatiana N. Bliss
Life Sciences
Quest University Canada


In biology classes, students are typically taught that spontaneous generation does not take place. And yet, at the origin of life, life had to arise without parents from abiotic processes. What were those processes that gave rise to the first life?  This case study uses an interrupted format to guide students through the Miller-Urey experiment of 1953, which showed that organic molecules could be produced from abiotic precursors and conditions thought to be prevalent on the early Earth. The case also addresses the more speculative implications about where these reactions may have taken place to create the organic building blocks of life on this planet. The first three parts of the case, which explore the Miller-Urey experiment, are ideal for introductory biology courses and take about 45-50 minutes to complete. The remaining sections, which explore whether such chemical reactions took place in outer space, were used in a non-major astrobiology course and require a further hour to complete.

  • Describe the premise, experimental design, and results of the Miller-Urey experiment.
  • Discuss the limitations, importance, and implications of these results for the origins of life on Earth.
  • Critique experimental evidence about the origins of organic molecules.
  • Propose experiments to test hypotheses about the origins of organic molecules.
  • Analyze and interpret results of experiments.
Keywords: Miller-Urey experiment; Urey-Miller experiment; Stanley Miller; organic molecules; origins of life; amino acids; Murchison meteorite; chemical evolution; astrobiology; chemistry of life; reduction and oxidation; redox
Topical Area: History of science, Scientific method
Educational Level: High school, Undergraduate lower division
Formats: PDF
Type/Method: Directed, Discussion, Interrupted
Language: English
Subject Headings: Astronomy   Biochemistry   Biology (General)   Chemistry (General)   Evolutionary Biology   Interdisciplinary Sciences   Marine Science / Oceanography   Organic Chemistry  
Date Posted: 11/16/2015
Date Modified: N/A
Copyright: Copyright held by the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Please see our usage guidelines, which outline our policy concerning permissible reproduction of this work.

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The following video(s) are recommended for use in association with this case study.

  Primordial Soup
Entertaining and memorable video originally shown in the 1980s at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum featuring Julia Child as she instructs the viewers about the recipe for cooking up “primordial soup.” Running time: 9:47 min. Produced by Smithsonian Institution, 1981.

  Introduction to Oxidation and Reduction
This video introduces oxidation states, oxidation, and reduction; also provides some tips for remembering oxidation and reduction. Running time: 11:03 min. Produced by Khan Academy.

  Oxidation and Reduction Review from Biological Point-of-View
This video looks at oxidation and reduction in a biological context. Running time: 13:28 min. Produced by Khan Academy.

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