Researchers Jeffrey Hall, Michael Rosbash, and Michael Young have been awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their research on the circadian clock. Many organisms have a circadian rhythm, which is a kind of internal clock that the body’s physiological functions follow. In the video below, you can hear from Anna Wedell, a Nobel Committee member, about the importance of the circadian clock and why this research was awarded the prestigious prize. After quickly explaining what the clock is, she notes that many years ago when such a cycle was first found, it was not known whether the clock was responding to external cues, or if it was internal.
While it was found that the cues are internal, very little was known about what was driving this system. The Nobel laureates used a familiar model in molecular biology, the fruit fly. They were able to find a gene that was linked to the clock and eventually were able to dig even deeper. The gene encodes for a protein which builds up in cells at night and is then broken down during the day.
In the press release accompanying the award, The Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet explains that the scientists “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.”
While it had been found that various parts of the body have circadian rhythms, the researchers have been commended for revealing details about the oscillatory mechanism. It is a kind of self-regulating process, which can shut itself off.
There has been research interest in whether our modern lifestyle is having a detrimental effect on your health in part because of the disruptions to our circadian rhythms. People travel long distances over time zones, work odd hours, and artificial light allows us to stay up at all hours of the night.
The scientists noted, "circadian rhythms ... are intimately linked to our health and disease, including diabetes, obesity, cancer and cardiovascular disease.”
Research in this area will surely continue, especially after this jolt of interest. After declining to award this years prize to the CRISPR gene-editing technique or immunotherapy techniques used to treat cancer, it seems many still value the pursuit of basic research without obvious, immediate payoffs.
Reached for comment by the New York Times, Rosbash was stunned by the announcement. “I was dead asleep. My first thought was that someone in the family had died,” he said.