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Abiotic Synthesis & the Origin of Life

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Instructor: Bridgett Payseur

Bridgett has a PhD in microbiology and immunology and teaches college biology.

Learn about abiotic synthesis, the ability of non-living compounds to replicate, and how this may explain the origin of life on Earth. Explore how abiotic synthesis occurs and the experiments of Stanley Miller and Harold Urey. Updated: 12/13/2021

Making Something from Nothing

Imagine a factory that makes conveyor belts. These conveyor belts, coincidentally, have to be shipped down conveyor belts as they're being produced and packaged. Where did the original conveyor belts come from? Could the factory have made them without its own machines to move them around? The conveyor belts in the factory probably would have had to come from someplace else, such as another factory.

Cells are a lot like microscopic factories, making proteins, carbohydrates, fats, and nucleic acids. When a new cell is made, it gets its starting materials from the parent cell, just like how our factory needed conveyor belts from another, older factory. But what about the first cells? How did they get all the materials they needed to be cells?

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  • 0:02 Making Something from Nothing
  • 0:46 Abiotic Synthesis
  • 2:19 Miller-Urey Experiment
  • 3:08 Lesson Summary
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Abiotic Synthesis

Cells contain a lot of organic molecules, which are carbon-based compounds that help do things for the cells. Fats and carbohydrates can store energy, for example, while proteins help reactions happen, and nucleic acids hold the cell's information. These components are made by cells and make up cells. Before cells evolved, however, organic molecules would've had to have been made via abiotic synthesis.

'Abiotic' means without life, and 'synthesis' means to make. Abiotic synthesis is, therefore, making things without life. The atmosphere on the early earth most likely contained water vapor, methane gas, ammonia, and carbon dioxide. These gases contain the major elements found in organic molecules: carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen. Scientists hypothesized that these gases could join up together to make organic molecules, just like taking Lego blocks from a small house and combining them to build a bigger, more elaborate house.

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