"Primordial soup" is a term introduced by the Soviet biologist Alexander Oparin. In 1924, he proposed a theory of the origin of life on Earth through the transformation, during the gradual chemical evolution of molecules that contain carbon in the primordial soup.
- Early Earth had a chemically reducing atmosphere.
- This atmosphere, exposed to energy in various forms, produced simple organic compounds ("monomers").
- These compounds accumulated in a "soup", which may have been concentrated at various locations (shorelines, oceanic vents etc.).
- By further transformation, more complex organic polymers – and ultimately life – developed in the soup.
A reducing atmosphere
Whether the mixture of gases used in the Miller–Urey experiment truly reflects the atmospheric content of early Earth is controversial. Other less reducing gases produce a lower yield and variety. It was once thought that appreciable amounts of molecular oxygen were present in the prebiotic atmosphere, which would have essentially prevented the formation of organic molecules; however, the current scientific consensus is that such was not the case. (See Oxygen catastrophe).
One of the most important pieces of experimental support for the "soup" theory came in 1953. A graduate student, Stanley Miller, and his professor, Harold Urey, performed an experiment that demonstrated how organic molecules could have spontaneously formed from inorganic precursors, under conditions like those posited by the Oparin-Haldane Hypothesis. The now-famous "Miller–Urey experiment" used a highly reduced mixture of gases—methane, ammonia and hydrogen—to form basic organic monomers, such as amino acids. This provided direct experimental support for the second point of the "soup" theory, and it is around the remaining two points of the theory that much of the debate now centers.
Apart from the Miller–Urey experiment, the next most important step in research on prebiotic organic synthesis was the demonstration by Joan Oró that the nucleic acid purine base, adenine, was formed by heating aqueous ammonium cyanide solutions. In support of abiogenesis in eutectic ice, more recent work demonstrated the formation of s-triazines (alternative nucleobases), pyrimidines (including cytosine and uracil), and adenine from urea solutions subjected to freeze-thaw cycles under a reductive atmosphere (with spark discharges as an energy source).
The spontaneous formation of complex polymers from abiotically generated monomers under the conditions posited by the "soup" theory is not at all a straightforward process. Besides the necessary basic organic monomers, compounds that would have prohibited the formation of polymers were formed in high concentration during the Miller–Urey and Oró experiments. The Miller experiment, for example, produces many substances that would undergo cross-reactions with the amino acids or terminate the peptide chain.
More fundamentally, it can be argued that the most crucial challenge unanswered by this theory is how the relatively simple organic building blocks polymerise and form more complex structures, interacting in consistent ways to form a protocell. For example, in an aqueous environment hydrolysis of oligomers/polymers into their constituent monomers would be favored over the condensation of individual monomers into polymers.
- Shapiro, Robert (1987). Origins: A Skeptic's Guide to the Creation of Life on Earth. Bantam Books. p. 110. ISBN 0-671-45939-2.
- Miller, Stanley L. (1953). "A Production of Amino Acids Under Possible Primitive Earth Conditions". Science 117 (3046): 528–9. Bibcode:1953Sci...117..528M. doi:10.1126/science.117.3046.528. PMID 13056598.
- Oró, J. (1961). "Mechanism of synthesis of adenine from hydrogen cyanide under possible primitive Earth conditions". Nature 191 (4794): 1193–4. Bibcode:1961Natur.191.1193O. doi:10.1038/1911193a0. PMID 13731264.
- Menor-Salván C, Ruiz-Bermejo DM, Guzmán MI, Osuna-Esteban S, Veintemillas-Verdaguer S (2007). "Synthesis of pyrimidines and triazines in ice: implications for the prebiotic chemistry of nucleobases". Chemistry 15 (17): 4411–8. doi:10.1002/chem.200802656. PMID 19288488.