Nobel Prize of Physiology or Medicine

Mia Noel, Writer

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The Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine was awarded on Monday, October 2nd in Stockholm, Sweden. The prize was awarded to Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash, and Michael W. Young for the 2017 year. These three scientists won the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine for their discoveries in the mechanisms that control an organism’s circadian responses to light and dark. The circadian rhythm is our body’s “inner clock”, also known as a cycle that tells our bodies when to sleep, eat, and wake up.

Jeffrey C. Hall was born in New York. He received his doctorate in 1971 from the University of Washington and continued on to work as a professor of biology at Brandeis University, but is now affiliated with the University of Maine. Michael Rosbash was born in Kansas. He received his doctorate in 1970 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has continued on to work as a biology professor for Brandeis University. Michael has an endowed chair, at Brandeis University, in neuroscience. Michael is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator. Michael W. Young was born in Miami, Florida. He received his doctorate from the University of Texas, in Austin, in 1975. Michael works as a professor of genetics at the Rockefeller University in New York.

The three scientists explained how a life-form’s “inner clock” can fluctuate to optimize our biology and physiology. The scientists theorized that the brain may have a single central clock controlling the cycles we’ve observed such as the rise and fall of our body temperature and blood pressure throughout the day. The scientists worked with fruit flies to isolate a gene, called period, that is responsible for a protein that accumulates during the night but is degraded during the day. This gene, period, controls our circadian rhythm, and when mutated, the fruit fly loses this rhythm. This gene was first discovered in 1984, when scientists isolated the period gene and discovered that cells use it to make a protein that builds up at night, during sleep, and during the day the protein degrades. The protein will build up and degrade according to the insects sleep- wake cycle.

Misalignments with this “inner clock” may play a role in medical conditions and disorders, as well as the temporary disorientation of jet lag that travelers experience when criss crossing time zones. “Their work was pivotal”, the Nobel committee said, “because the misalignment between a person’s lifestyle and the rhythm dictated by an inner timekeeper. As an example, receiving jet lag after a flight across the Atlantic Ocean could affect a person’s well being and, over time, could contribute to the risks for various diseases. Alzheimer’s disease, depression, ADHD (attention deficit hyperactive disorder), heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and other metabolic issues are some of many conditions that appear to be linked to circadian rhythms being out of whack. “With exquisite precision, our inner clock adapts our psychology to the dramatically different phases of the day,” committee members commented. “The clock regulates critical functions such as behavior, hormone levels, sleep, body temperature, and metabolism.

The Nobel Prize committee said that, “their discoveries explain how plants, animals, and humans adapt their biological rhythm so that it is synchronized with the earth’s revolutions”. Rosbash says that “it’s ticking away in almost every tissue in the human body”. It’s also in plants, including major food crops and appears to be tied to “disease susceptibility, growth rate, and fruit size,” said Rosbash. Now we know each living thing, including those without brains, may have many different clocks. “We learned we are truly rhythmic organisms,” Young said on a phone interview. Erin O’Shea, president of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, said that people have observed for centuries that plants and animals change their behavior in sync with the light present in the natural environment. Erin said that “genes make up the mechanics by which organisms can keep track of time and this allows them, just like your wristwatch, to coordinate their behavior and their sleep-wake cycle with the changes in the light-dark cycle”.