Nobel in Medicine: Our Biological Clocks!

Oct 12, 2017 By Hannah, Young Editor
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Every day, you wake up. As you go about your day, you get hungry, so you eat. When it gets later, you start to feel tired, so you go to sleep. Ever wonder how your body reminds you to do these things?

In fact, these reminders happen because of your circadian rhythm. Circadian rhythm is the daily cycle of bodily functions that is influenced by hormones, as well as environmental factors such as sunlight and temperature.  

Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbach, and Michael Y. Young’s discoveries changed the way people view circadian rhythms and their work has earned them the 2017 Nobel Prize in Medicine. Their research helps explain how proteins interact with nuclei in our brain to create a repetitive cycle. Their work with fruit flies brings more insight to how genes play a significant role in shaping our biological clock, leading to more research in this area.

What is Circadian Rhythm?

The circadian rhythm is a periodic, physiological process that happens in all organisms. This rhythm is controlled by small nuclei in the middle of our brains, known as suprachiasmatic nuclei that control the number of hormones we produce at different times of the day. For instance, stress hormones are produced less during the night but are heightened during the mornings. This helps us to fall asleep at night and wake up in the morning.

Sunlight also plays a notable role in setting our internal clock and gives our body time cues. This is also why people who are blind have a harder time sleeping than others. This rhythm affects more than just our sleep patterns, it also regulates fertility, immunity, and body temperature as well.

In 1984, Hall, Rosbach, and Young were able to isolate a gene called the period gene. They noticed that fruit flies that did not have this gene were unable to perform bodily functions like regulating hormone levels, metabolism, and more. Over the years, they were able to understand that the period gene produces two proteins, PER and TIM that build up at night and reduce during the day. Together, these proteins work to regulate our circadian cycle.

What Does This Mean?

The possibilities of these scientists’ discoveries are endless and undefined. In fact, scientists believe that circadian rhythms can teach us more about diseases such as blindness and schizophrenia.

A disrupted circadian rhythm can bring about catastrophic consequences, such as traffic accidents and workplace injuries, which is why sleeping and eating on time are important. We are also more likely to suffer various heart disease and cancer. Research in this area has helped pharmaceutical companies create more effective drugs that can be taken at the right time of day.

Though Hall, Rosbach, and Young’s research is only the tip of the iceberg, their discovery of period genes and their respective proteins plays a big role in what we know about our biological clocks. This could lead to future discoveries that can change the way we behave. With this in mind, it is not difficult to see why they were awarded what is considered the most prestigious award a scientist can receive.