Mass Spectrometry & Spectroscopy

Nobel 2017 - What is the Circadian Rhythm?

Oct 05 2017 Read 1108 Times

Ever wondered why jet lag takes such a toll on the body? Or how you often wake up just seconds before your alarm? Well, a team of three scientists have finally unravelled the mystery, and won themselves a 2017 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in the process.

According to Jeffrey Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael Young, the body is hugely influenced by the circadian rhythm, aka the body clock. As well as triggering an urge to sleep at night, the circadian rhythm also drives huge changes in behaviour and body function. The trio have received bigtime praise from the Nobel prize committee, which claims that the findings have "vast implications for our health and wellbeing."

Unravelling the mysteries of the "body clock"

The body clock may be a well-known concept, but until now its actual mechanics have remained incredibly mysterious. Hall, Rosbash and Young have spent years unravelling how the system works, and have now been awarded the highest accolade in science for their efforts.

Basically, they have managed to prove that a clock ticks in nearly every cell of the human body, as well as in plants, animals and fungi. They've demonstrated how these molecular clocks operate across the entire animal kingdom, and their effects on mood, hormone levels, body temperature and metabolism. They also delved into the consequences of disrupting the rhythm, with the team claiming that an out of synch body clock can affect memory formation, as well as increase the risk type 2 diabetes, cancer and heart disease.

Fruit flies shed light on the circadian rhythm

Amazingly, the trio managed to pinpoint the breakthrough findings using humble fruit flies. This offered them an in-depth glimpse at how "molecular feedback loops" keep time in all animals, not just humans.

They did this by isolating a section of DNA called the 'period' gene, a crucial player in regulating the circadian rhythm. Specifically, it contains instructions for making a protein called PER. As levels of PER increase, the period gene actively switches off its own genetic instructions. As a result, levels of the PER protein fluctuate over a 24-hour cycle, spiking during the night and falling during the day.

The team also discovered genes called 'timeless' and 'doubletime' which both affect the stability of PER. When PER is stable the body clock ticks at a slower rate, however when it's unstable the circadian rhythm runs too fast, which somewhat explains why some people are morning larks and others are night owls.

A public health issue?

So what's the relevance? According to British circadian timing researcher Dr Michael Hastings, the Nobel prize winning body clock research is a major discovery for the public health sector.

"We encounter the body clock when we experience jet lag and we appreciate it's debilitating for a short time, but the real public health issue is rotational shift work - it's a constant state of jet lag," he asserts.

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