Nobel Prize in Medicine Awarded to Researchers Covering Circadian Rhythms

Researchers work showed how misalignment between a person’s lifestyle and the biological clock could affect well-being and contribute to the risks for various diseases.

Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for discoveries about molecular mechanisms controlling the body’s circadian rhythm.

The researchers explain how plants, animals and humans adapt their biological rhythm so it’s synchronized with the Earth’s revolutions. Using fruit files to isolate a gene that controls the rhythm of a living organism’s daily life, the scientists were able to peek inside our biological clock. By examining the internal workings of fruit flies, scientists determined that the gene being analyzed encoded a protein that accumulated in cells at night, then degraded during the day.

“The field had long been speculating on this Nobel Prize,” Frank A.J.L. Scheer, associate professor of medicine, Harvard Medical School, and director of the medical chronobiology program, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said. “This is great recognition for the field of circadian rhythms that are intimately linked to our health and disease, including diabetes, obesity, cancer and cardiovascular disease.”

In the fruit flies, a gene called period controlled the circadian rhythm, and when mutated, the insects lost the rhythms.

In 1984, scientists isolated the period gene and discovered cells use it to make a protein that builds up at night, during sleep. During the day, the protein degrades in accordance with the insects’ sleep-wake cycle. The protein, or PER, blocked the period gene during the day. As it was broken down in the day, the gene regained its function, working again the next night, directing the synthesis of PER.

The system involved several other proteins needed to control the accumulation of PER, one specifically that attaches to PER and helps to block the gene period, while another slows the buildup of the protein.

Through decades of research, scientists identified the mechanisms governing clockwork inside the cell, shedding light on the biology of humans and other multicellular organisms whose biological clocks function on similar principles, notably one that allows light to influence the 24-hour rhythm.

The Nobel Prize winners work was pivotal, because the misalignment between a person’s lifestyle and the rhythm dictated by an inner timekeeper could affect well-being and over time contribute to the risks for various diseases, for example disruption to our clocks when someone travels across a number of time zones results in jet lag.

The imbalance between lifestyle and rhythm could lead to increased risk for numerous diseases like metabolic diseases like diabetes and cancer, and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease and schizophrenia. Therapeutic interventions could be made possible by mimicking light to regulate a person’s body clock.

This research will allow drugs to target a specific area where the biological clock is disrupted. It shows our brain and body require a 24-hour rhythm to have excellent health.

A release was made available.