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Trending Science: Clocking up a Nobel Prize for work on circadian rhythms

The 2017 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine has gone to three scientists for their discoveries of the molecular mechanisms that control circadian rhythms.

The work which has been recognised by the Prize was carried out by three American scientists: Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash, and Michael W. Young. Their research has led to a better understanding or the fundamental issue of, ‘(…) how plants, animals, and humans adapt their biological rhythm so that it is synchronised with the Earth’s revolutions.’ An area ever more relevant as factors that take humans out of sync with their body clocks are increasing, from shift work to jet lag. There are lot of hot areas of research in this domain at the moment like Crispr gene editing that can help in the creation of climate change resistant crops and provide frontier-busting ways of removing genes responsible for debilitating conditions, or immuno-oncolology which avoids the need for cancer patients to undergo radiation or chemotherapy by kick-starting a patient’s immune system. The Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet explain their choice: ‘The biological clock is involved in many aspects of our complex physiology. We now know that all multicellular organisms, including humans, utilise a similar mechanism to control circadian rhythms. A large proportion of our genes are regulated by the biological clock and, consequently, a carefully calibrated circadian rhythm adapts our physiology to the different phases of the day. Since the seminal discoveries by the three laureates, circadian biology has developed into a vast and highly dynamic research field, with implications for our health and wellbeing.’ The work behind the prize The three scientists used fruit flies in their research, isolating the gene that controls our daily, biological rhythm. They established that a protein is encoded by the gene and that this protein accumulates over night and depletes throughout the day. They then went on to study the mechanism in greater detail, discovering other protein components and building up a clearer picture of how the clockwork within cells is governed. From single celled organisms to the great apes, the clock regulates critical functions including hormone levels, sleep, behaviour, metabolism and other elements we have yet to discover. As the online tech magazine Wired reports, the impact of circadian rhythms on sleep is of interest to the drug and IT industries. The biohackers of tomorrow could help correct dysfunctional sleep patterns and since studies show that night owls have a greater propensity to obesity, and depression has also been linked to sleep, the stakes are high. This year’s prize for Physiology or Medicine recognises the ground-breaking work done by the three scientists on which future discoveries will be build.


United States