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Decoding the Nobel Prize 2017 for the “Circadian Rhythm”

  • 25 October 2017
  • By Shveta Bhagat

The limelight is once again on the “circadian rhythm”, thanks to the Nobel Prize 2017 in physiology. We had heard the term so far with relation to sleep and how it is accountable for our sleep cycle. So what is new that the scientists have discovered?

The Nobel laureates Jeffrey C. Hall (University of Maine), Michael W. Young (Rockefeller University), and Michael Rosbash (Brandeis University) have basically gone further to elucidate how it exactly works, by unravelling the important gene called “period” that is responsible for the way it works.

Starting the study in 1984, the team while studying fruit flies found that ‘period’ encodes for a protein called PER, which stocks up during the night and slowly degrades during the day. It appeared that the higher the level of PER in a cell, the fewer would be formed creating an inhibitory feedback circle that basically allowed PER to control its own levels all through the day.

They started study on a topic that had not been researched enough until then but led to subsequent findings of other genes that play important roles in the cycle. A second clock gene, called “timeless”, encoded for TIM, a protein that attaches to PER, and collectively they enter the cell nucleus. The duo then obstructs the movement of the period gene. The production of more PER proteins is slowed down during the process. “Doubletime”, a third gene, was found to encode for the protein DBT, synchronizing the circadian rhythm to the familiar 24-hour cycle by delaying PER's accumulation.

The work of Rosbash, Hall, and Young has since developed into a wide field of research on our biological clocks and garnered much interest. More recent studies of how the day and night cycle affects living organisms based on their findings have found that the circadian rhythm regulates all mammalian genes, genetic mutations can cause insomnia, and to restore our system, stimulating certain neurons could act as a reset button, even treating jet lag.

The circadian rhythm, which is the inner biological clock that helps humans adjust to the daily light cycle related to the Earth’s rotation, is responsible for the proper functioning of our body. It controls many biological functions, including sleep, hormone levels, body temperature, heart rate and metabolism. Any disruption in the circadian clock in humans can prove hazardous to health and lead to deadly diseases. Scientists are now aware of how integral it is to the body and are searching for ways to improve treatment of cardiovascular and other diseases by coordinating release of drugs with circadian rhythm or a patient’s clock.

Considering we live in an age where modern gadgets and contemporary lifestyle rule our lives and well being, the Nobel Prize has come at an apt time to remind us of the importance of our inner biological clock and how to acknowledge its inherent functioning and move in pace with nature.

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