Discovery of inner workings of biological clock wins Nobel Prize

2 Oct 2017

Image: S Rock/Shutterstock

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine has been awarded to three researchers for discovering how our biological clock actually works.

As far back as the 18th century, science has understood every living organism to have an internal biological clock, which our bodies use to align with the day and night cycle here on Earth.

The discovery of how this actually works is the achievement of three researchers, who have today (2 October) been announced as joint winners of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine: Jeffrey C Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W Young.

Their discoveries explained how plants, animals and humans adapt their biological rhythm – scientifically referred to as the circadian rhythm – so that it is synchronised with the Earth’s revolutions.

Using fruit flies, the three scientists were able to isolate a gene that controls the normal daily biological rhythm, and show that this one gene encodes a protein that accumulates in the cell during the night, and is then degraded during the day.

Additionally, they were able to identify other protein components of this complex machinery and expose the mechanism governing the self-sustaining clockwork inside the cell.

By understanding more about the mechanisms behind our internal biological clock, we can better control its regulation of critical functions such as behaviour, hormone levels, sleep, body temperature and metabolism.

Otherwise, our wellbeing can be affected when there is a temporary mismatch between our external environment and this internal clock, as seen when someone experiences jet lag after a long-haul flight, for example.

History of discovery

The first analysis of a ‘clock gene’ began in the 1970s when researcher Seymour Benzer and his student Ronald Konopka asked whether it would be possible to identify genes that control the circadian rhythm in fruit flies.

It was in 1984, however, that Hall and Rosbash at Brandeis University in Boston, and Young at the Rockefeller University in New York, succeeded in isolating the period gene.

Hall and Rosbash then went on to discover that PER, the protein encoded by period, accumulated during the night and degraded during the day.

At the announcement, the Nobel committee said that it had not yet been able to contact Young to tell him of his prestigious award. When it contacted Rosbash, the scientist was apparently flabbergasted and simply replied: “You are kidding me!”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic