Body Clock Scientists Win Nobel Prize

IAS News 2 October 2017 | 0 Comments

Three scientists who revealed how our bodies tell time have won the 2017 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine.

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.
The US scientists Jeffrey Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael Young will share the prize.

The Nobel prize committee have stated that their findings had “vast implications for our health and wellbeing”.
Our mood, hormone levels, body temperature and metabolism all fluctuate in a daily rhythm. Even our risk of a heart attack soars every morning as our body gets the machine running to start a new day.

In the short term, body clock disturbance affects memory formation, but in the long term it increases the risk of diseases, including type 2 diabetes, cancer and heart disease.
“If we screw that system up we have a big impact on our metabolism,” said Prof Russell Foster, a body clock scientist at the University of Oxford.
Their research breakthroughs were on fruit flies, but their results explain how “molecular feedback loops” keep time in all animals.

Jeffrey Hall and Michael Rosbash isolated a section of DNA called the period gene, which had been implicated in the circadian rhythm. The period gene contained directions for making a protein called PER. As levels of PER increased, it turned off its own genetic instructions.

As a result, levels of the PER protein oscillate over a 24-hour cycle – rising during the night and falling during the day. Michael Young discovered a gene called timeless and another one calleddoubletime. They both affect the stability of PER. If PER is more stable the clock ticks more slowly, if it is less stable then it runs too fast. The stability of PER is one reason some of us are morning larks and others are night owls.

Dr Michael Hastings, who researches circadian timing at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, told the BBC: “Before this work in fruit flies we really didn’t have any ideas of the genetic mechanism – body clocks were viewed as a black box on a par with astrology.”

He added: “We encounter the body clock when we experience jet lag and we appreciate it’s debilitating for a short time, but the real public health issue is rotational shift work – it’s a constant state of jet lag.”

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