Body clock research wins the 2017 Nobel prize in physiology

Thu 12 Oct

On 2nd October 2017, the Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology was awarded to three American scientists Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young, for their work on the body clock, also known as the circadian rhythm.

Your body clock is why you wake up at 7 am on a Saturday, even though you can have a lie in and why people suffer from jet lag when they go on international flights. The body clock is synced up with how the earth rotates and makes sure that our bodies do different things at different times of the day - which is very important.

The body clock of plants has been observed since the 18th century when a French scientist, Jean Jacques d'Ortous found mimosa plants would follow a routine of opening and closing their leaves, even if they never saw the sun. At the time, scientists thought that the sun was what caused the opening and closing of leaves. This observation sparked an interest in scientists to find out what makes this body clock work.

In the 1980's, it was found that the body clock seemed to be controlled by a single gene, called period, but it wasn't until 1984 when the gene was isolated by this year's Nobel Prize winners, that it helped the research community understand why this gene controls our daily rhythms.

Hall, Rosbash and Young worked on fruit flies and found that the period gene makes a protein called PER, which builds up in cells during the night and is taken out of the cell during the day. The differences in the amount of PER in a cell throughout a 24-hour cycle is what controls our body clock.

The three scientists were honored with the Nobel prize for working out the rest of the system of how PER actually works in a cell, which included identifying two more genes called timeless and doubletime - these genes take PER to the nucleus of a cell to do it's job and stops PER building up in cells too fast (respectively).

Research into the body clock has continued to grow as scientists understand why it is so important to have and finding out its implications for our health and wellbeing. Disruption of the body clock could lead to sleep disorders, affect mental alertness and cause depression amongst others.

Julien Zierath of the Nobel Academy said "that the winners have raised awareness of the importance of sleep hygiene." And you can find more information about this year's Nobel Prize here.


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