Nobel Prize Medicine winners 2017 for work on biological clocks
Three Americans won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discoveries about the body’s daily rhythms, opening up whole new fields of research and raising awareness about the importance of getting proper sleep.
Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young won the 9-million-kronor ($1.1 million) prize for isolating a gene that controls the body’s normal daily biological rhythm.
Life on Earth is adapted to its rotation. For many years it is known that living organisms, including humans, have an internal, biological clock that helps them anticipate and adapt to the regular rhythm of the day. But how does this clock actually work? Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young were able to peek inside our biological clock and elucidate its inner workings. Their discoveries explain how plants, animals and humans adapt their biological rhythm so that it is synchronized with the Earth’s revolutions.
Using fruit flies as a model organism, this year’s Nobel laureates isolated a gene that controls the normal daily biological rhythm. They showed that this gene encodes a protein that accumulates in the cell during the night, and is then degraded during the day. Subsequently, they identified additional protein components of this machinery, exposing the mechanism governing the self-sustaining clockwork inside the cell. Now It can be recognized that biological clocks function by the same principles in cells of other multicellular organisms, including humans.
With exquisite precision, our inner clock adapts our physiology to the dramatically different phases of the day. The clock regulates critical functions such as behavior, hormone levels, sleep, body temperature and metabolism. Our wellbeing is affected when there is a temporary mismatch between our external environment and this internal biological clock, for example when we travel across several time zones and experience “jet lag”. There are also indications that chronic misalignment between our lifestyle and the rhythm dictated by our inner timekeeper is associated with increased risk for various diseases.
Our inner clock
Most living organisms anticipate and adapt to daily changes in the environment. During the 18th century, the astronomer Jean Jacques d’Ortous de Mairan studied mimosa plants, and found that the leaves opened towards the sun during daytime and closed at dusk. He wondered what would happen if the plant was placed in constant darkness. He found that independent of daily sunlight the leaves continued to follow their normal daily oscillation (Figure 1). Plants seemed to have their own biological clock.
Other researchers found that not only plants, but also animals and humans, have a biological clock that helps to prepare our physiology for the fluctuations of the day. This regular adaptation is referred to as the circadian rhythm, originating from the Latin words circa meaning “around” and dies meaning “day”. But just how our internal circadian biological clock worked remained a mystery.