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The Spark of Life

Where Did Organic Molecules Come From?


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.


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 Areas

History of science, Scientific method

Educational Level

High school, Undergraduate lower division



Type / Methods

Directed, Discussion, Interrupted



Subject Headings

Astronomy  |   Biochemistry  |   Biology (General)  |   Chemistry (General)  |   Evolutionary Biology  |   Interdisciplinary Sciences  |   Marine Science / Oceanography  |   Organic Chemistry  |  

Date Posted


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

  • Primordial Soup
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