Simon Hadlington of Chemistry World reports that quantum mechanical simulations of the 1953 Miller-Urey experiment, which used an electrical discharge to generate amino acids from simple organic molecules, suggest that formic acid and formamide may have acted as short-lived chemical intermediates in the reactions that gave rise to life on Earth. However, some experts are not convinced.
Nir Goldman, from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, notes: “One criticism is that the authors chose to use a somewhat reduced or hydrogen-rich mixture in their study, whereas the atmosphere on early Earth is thought to have been carbon dioxide rich, which could entail very different chemistry in the presence of an electric field.” Jeffrey Bada, from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, was not enthusiastic either: “This paper … does not in my opinion advance the field of prebiotic chemistry in a major way. At best the synthesis pathway proposed in this paper would be only a minor contributor to the overall amino acid yield.”
There are twenty-one amino acids found in eukaryotes. The amino acids generated by the 1953 Miller-Urey experiment contained about two dozen atoms. By contrast, the number of atoms in a humble E. coli bacterium is around 7,000,000,000. I hope readers can see why I’m not exactly holding my breath when I read reports like this one.