Nautilus

The Dawn of Life in a $5 Toaster Oven

God might just as well have begun with a toaster oven. A few years ago at a yard sale, Nicholas Hud spotted a good candidate: A vintage General Electric model, chrome-plated with wood-grain panels, nestled in an old yellowed box, practically unused. The perfect appliance for cooking up the chemical precursors of life, he thought. He bought it for $5.

At home in his basement, with the help of his college-age son, he cut a rectangular hole in the oven’s backside, through which an automated sliding table (recycled from an old document scanner) could move a tray of experiments in and out. He then attached a syringe pump to some inkjet printer parts, and rigged the system to periodically drip water onto the tray.

Today the contraption sits atop a workbench in Hud’s laboratory at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he directs the Center for Chemical Evolution, a multi-university consortium funded by NASA and the National Science Foundation. For the past two decades, he has been hunting for the chemical recipes that could explain how life arose on Earth. When scientists began investigating life’s molecular origin in the 1950s, they assumed that the first biological molecules formed spontaneously from a soup of primordial compounds: a lucky marriage of the right ingredients, under the right conditions, at the right time. Hud and his colleagues are now finding that the spark of life may have struck much more gradually, not by chance but via a long chemical evolution.

The toaster is

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