Discovery of inner workings of biological clock wins Nobel Prize

Lena Tucker
October 3, 2017

Timeless, the first gene Young discovered, encoded the TIM protein that was required for a normal circadian rhythm. This is the internal cycle (circa is the Latin for "about" and dies the Latin for "day") that matches the body's physiology to the alternation of light and darkness caused by Earth's rotation.

Since 1906 to 2016, 107 Nobel Prizes in Physiology or Medicine have been awarded amongst 211 individuals.

To determine how this gene worked, the three scientists who won the Nobel Prize used fruit flies to isolate period and realized that the protein encoded by this gene, PER, fluctuates over a 24-hour cycle. Rosbash was born in 1944, received his doctoral degree in 1970 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and now works at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts.

Additionally, they were able to identify other protein components of this complex, biological machinery and expose the mechanism governing the self-sustaining clockwork inside the cell.

The body clock - or circadian rhythm - is the reason we want to sleep at night, but it also drives huge changes in behaviour and body function.

They showed that the gene code had instructions to make a particular protein, called PER. We now know that all multicellular organisms, including humans, utilize a similar mechanism to control circadian rhythms.

Hall, of Brandeis University; Rosbash, also of Brandeis; and Young, of Rockefeller University, will share a prize of 9 million Swedish krona, or about $940,000. Then 10 years later, Young reported the discovery of another "clock gene".

Circadian rhythms have never got the respect they deserve from lighting designers, architects or engineers, often thought of as pseudoscience.

The committee highlighted how the scientists' work helped to explain how a misalignment between a person's lifestyle and circadian rhythm - through jet lag, for example - could affect his or her well-being over time and increase their susceptibility to various diseases.

The circadian rhythm is mostly endogenous: it is "performed" and regulated by chemical reactions that occur within the body's cells, using internal cues.

For instance, jet lag is a effect of a temporary mismatch between the inner clock and the environment that occurs when people travel across several time zones. Dr Young operated separately, at Rockefeller University, in NY.

If PER is more stable then the clock ticks more slowly, if it is less stable then it runs too fast.

Michael Hastings, a scientist at the U.K. Medical Research Council, said the discoveries by the 2017 Nobel Medicine winners had opened up a whole new field of study for biology and medicine.

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