These Nobel laureates discovered how genes control your body clock

These three American scientists used fruit flies to discover that genes control body clock by producing proteins

By DTE Staff
Last Updated: Tuesday 03 October 2017

(Left to Right) Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young. Credit: Nobel MediaWhen you travel across different time zones, you get jet lagged. Working in rotational shifts leads to sleep loss and fatigue. These are linked to disruption to your body clock. Three US scientists—Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young—who have won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, have discovered molecular mechanisms that control our body clock. They did extensive research on how plants, humans and animals adapt their biological clock to synchronise with day and night cycle to control their daily life.

The Nobel laureates used fruit flies to discover a gene that controls this body clock. They also found out how this gene controls the clock by producing a protein which "accumulates in the cell during the night and degrades during the day". As Circadian rhythm or the body clock helps regulate eating habits, blood pressure and body temperature, a mismatch between internal clock and external environment affects a person's well-being; just like disruption to body clocks in plants affects the growth rate of crops.

READ: Genes and external environmental factors have retuned our body clocks so that we sleep for different durations than others


Building on the work of scientist Seymour Benzer and his student Ronald Konopka in the 1970s, who highlighted how mutations in an unknown gene “period” disrupted body clock of flies, the three scientists managed to isolate the gene and discovered that the levels of protein that this gene produces, PER, increase during the night and decrease during the day.

They also discovered the role of another gene, called "timeless," which produces a protein called TIM. It works in combination with the PER protein to regulate the activity of period gene, and, in turn, the levels of the PER protein.

According to Professor Russell Foster, director of the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute at the University of Oxford, this research could enable therapeutic interventions for those suffering from degenerative diseases. It could allow drugs to target a specific area where the clock is disrupted.

ALSO READ: Until two centuries ago, in most parts of the world, people had two distinct intervals of sleep, known as "first" and "second" sleep

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